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.

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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?

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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):

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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:

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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:

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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”:

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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.

Overwatch Part 1: Why Casual Is Better

Overwatch is Kind Of A Big Deal right now. Blizzard is breaking into a new IP and new genre with its super-stylized team shooter, and it’s a rather good game. It’s not a game for everyone, but I think it’s a game worth trying, because it does a bunch of things *just* differently enough to be compelling.

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Let me cut to the chase: Overwatch is Team Fortress 2 as done by Blizzard. Same bright colour palette, same stylized art, same overall sense of winking fun while also being a tight, well-tuned shooter. The main thing it adds to Team Fortress 2 is movement, which is significant. Lots of shooters have been playing with the idea of movement as a significant verb, and Overwatch is no exception– different characters move differently and this is extremely significant. I’ve talked before about how important new verbs are to games, and while certainly a newer game, Overwatch is more fun out the gate than TF2 was, and a huge part of that is that it adds that verb. Indeed, a lot of the gunplay in Overwatch is LESS satisfying than TF2, but it matters a lot less because there are other things going on.

For a while, I’ve lamented that MMO game design has been co-opted by virtually every other genre out there while apparently learning nothing from the advances elsewhere in the industry. It’s not super surprising to me, then, that a game made by the company that basically defined MMOs for the last decade draws heavily on MMO design ethos. Overwatch feels more like a team PvP match in WoW than it does a more ‘traditional’ shooter. Working together is always important, but in Overwatch this is accomplished through abilities that work together in intuitive ways. Overwatch breaks its characters down into MMO-style roles, and even if the abilities and armaments of a given character aren’t immediately apparent, by seeing what role they’re labeled as, you can get a sense of how to play them. It’s very MOBA-esque, although significantly more intuitive than most MOBAs.

What really sets Overwatch apart, though, is the same thing that sets Heroes of the Storm apart: accessibility. Team shooters are hugely inaccessible games for the most part: an exercise in new player frustration as they die and lose repeatedly without a good sense of why or how to improve. This kind of frustrating experience is really bad for a game’s health, however much a certain player mentality really likes to say “oh, you gotta get your lumps in at first”. Trying to sell someone on something “fun” but telling them they’re going to have to suffer before they get to “the good part” is a fairly outdated mentality at this point, and Overwatch does everything it can to eliminate it.

Overwatch pops up helpful player tips constantly. It will give you tips on how to fight the character who just killed you, it will suggest team compositions, and it draws lines through the map at the start of the game so you know where you’re going. Map knowledge is important for playing the game well, but playing competently doesn’t require that you memorize every map before jumping in. Adding to this, the way maps connect together is intuitive– there aren’t a lot of obscure passageways to hunt down in order to reach hidden snipers.

Adding to this, the characters are simple but deep. There’s no ironsights aiming, virtually no weapon switching, very few complex weapon interactions, no difficult comparisons between similar weapons– what you see is what you get, and this helps the game a LOT. The nuance in each character comes naturally as you play them, not in complex pre-planning. Making a character shine often requires good teamwork, and it’s apparent how to make that happen. One character has a gigantic forward-facing shield that blocks incoming fire. It’s great for protecting an advance, since your allies can shoot through it but your enemies can’t. It leaves you open at the sides and back, though, so your team needs to cover your flanks. This is REALLY OBVIOUS the second you see this character in action, and doesn’t require some deep knowledge of the ability to function.

The sense of accessibility permeates through every level of the game’s design. The game is chock-full of positive feedback, and eliminates a LOT of standard first-person shooter tropes, especially in the UI, in order to promote teamwork and prevent the kind of statistical comparisons that create toxicity between players. There’s no kill feed, except in spectator mode, and if you pull up the scoreboard, it will show you your statistics and the current top statistics in the game, but not EVERYONE’s statistics. There’s no distinction between kills and assists. The game operates at the team level, and when it displays the top players, it shows off almost entirely random-seeming stats. If you’re losing, or failing with a given character, you can swap out during a match, in your base, rather than being stuck until the end of the match. All of this promotes as much of a positive upward spiral as possible, and keeps the game fun and intuitive.

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At the same time, it’s a surprisingly deep game. Very simple characters offer a lot of nuance, especially in a group. One of my favorite characters is D. Va, a mecha pilot tank-type. Her mechanics are really simple: she has rapid-firing shotguns that are strong in close, she’s got a forward conal shield that will block incoming fire, and while her base movement is somewhat slow (slower while shooting), she has a rocket boost that lets her fly around very briefly at pretty high speed. When her mech takes fatal damage, she’s ejected and becomes a much smaller, much faster target with a surprisingly powerful and accurate sidearm– survive long enough in this form and she can resummon a new mech. Her ultimate sets off the self-destruct in her mech, creating an enormous, super-damaging explosion that will kill virtually anyone it hits (including you, if you’re too close). In practice, this creates a really slippery tank class that can absorb a shocking amount of punishment between deaths, and is a really strong flanking tank that can hit an enemy from unexpected angles and (with her ult) is great at cracking dug-in enemies. She’s a lot of fun to play because you can stay in the fight for an incredibly long time, and you’re doing very different things while in the mech vs out of it. Working together with teammates means you can push harder than other tanks, since if you go down you’re still contributing to the team on foot, and then can fairly quickly get back into a new mech at top form. Right as you break through an enemy blockade, you can swap to flanking mode and make sure your team can lock their position. Alternately, you can blow up your mech in a group of enemies as the spearhead to a big push, especially if you have another more standard tank to help out.

My initial question when I started seeing Overwatch stuff was “why would I not just play TF2?”, and over the past few days I’ve gotten a really clear answer. It’s a fun, accessible game that adds movement as a fun new dimension to an otherwise lighthearted, casual experience.

Back After A Break (Or: When The Game Stops Being Fun)

It’s been a while since I posted last, mostly because there hasn’t been a lot I really feel like saying. It turns out it helps me to take a break from posting every so often to clear my head. I hadn’t really considered this previously, because my breaks from this have coincided with fairly major life events, so it’s seemed reasonable to just stop posting for a while. This time, it was more burnout than anything.

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While not posting, especially when I’ve had an unbroken string of posts for a while, there’s this weight of obligation, this feeling like I need to post something, need to write something, just to fill up space. It’s the same sense of feeling obligated to log into an MMO every day, just to “check in”. I hadn’t really connected the two before now.

Something I see a lot, and have talked to a lot of people about over the years, is burnout. It’s a huge issue in game development, and it’s a constant cycle in MMO raiding, two spheres where I’ve spent a lot of time. There’s a pervasive sense that you need to keep going, keep doing the Fun Thing, because if it’s not a Fun Thing, why did you spend so much time in it? It’s often compared to the business semi-equivalent, the concept of sunk costs, but I feel like it’s a poor comparison. Just because I’m not having fun with something *now* doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun *before*. We change, situations change, and it’s not (always) the game’s fault.

I haven’t logged into FFXIV in months now. I haven’t stopped liking that game; it’s still one of my favorite games, I just don’t feel like playing it right now. The most fun I have, the most invested I get in that game, is when there’s a nice big backlog of content to go through and get a bunch of story all at once. Getting the story in drips and drabs just gets me to lose the thread, especially when they come months apart. I’m excited about the next big thing they’re putting together, their procedurally-generated dungeon, and I’ll wait to play until that’s out and I have a bunch of stuff to catch up on.

Starting to post here again is kind of the same thing. I feel like I have things to say and comments to make, and I’ve played enough games in the interim to have more food for thought.

Feeling Out Of Things To Say

Lately my pace on this blog has slowed. I don’t know what (if any) regular readers I have who’ve noticed this, but I figured I’d at least mention it. I’ve done five days a week for a little over a year and dropped to four, then three, than now once or twice a week. Part of this is that work and class picked up and it was hard enough to juggle both while still writing weekly, but part of it is also that I feel like I don’t have a lot to say.

via twolittlefruits on Etsy

via twolittlefruits on Etsy

I’ve mentioned this before, but I don’t really like talking unless I feel like there’s something valuable for me to say, something someone else might hear or read and either think about or disagree with me or be inspired by or understand something better or whatever. I’m similar in person– I generally don’t talk unless I have something to say. Most of my posts (though not all!) have been essentially semi-academic-style essays about various topics, just more opinion-leaning than cited, credible sources. It makes me feel like I’m contributing rather than just talking.

Lately, I’ve been busy with class and haven’t been playing a lot of games– or I haven’t had a lot of Big Ideas about the ones I have been playing. I don’t have anything deep or insightful to say about Stardew Valley or Mini Metro, other than both are really great games and I enjoy them a lot.

I guess a big part of it is that I don’t know what people like to read. If you are reading this, what DO you like to read about? What makes you check this space? I’m honestly curious, because I don’t really know.