Tentative Excitement: the new Hitman

I picked up the “intro” pack for the new Hitman recently, and played a bunch of it last night– $15 for the tutorial levels and the first mission of the game. I’ve played through the tutorials and part of the first mission, and I’m really sold, especially for the price I paid.

MzyuNynT1S7FX2qBEStore_HITMAN_1141x315_r1_1140_KR_1140_KR

The structure of the game is interesting– there’ve always been many, many ways to approach a Hitman level, and, in general, few reasons to revisit them. In this iteration of the series, there are still the many ways to approach the levels, but the game nudges you to try different ones, making the replay value of the game a lot more apparent by indicating different ways to approach it. Rather than having to intuit creative solutions on the fly while under pressure, the game messages these solutions to you in the form of NPC conversations, various documents you can find scattered around the level, and other such details.

The game also has a lot more depth as far as the choices you can make. Despite being a game about assassination, killing anyone except your target is considered poor form at best, and mission-compromising at worst. Disguises are key to getting close to your target, and acquiring these takes creativity, patience, and timing if you want to do it well. What I also really like is the emphasis not just on the target, but also getting out.

It’s fascinating to me how much a game whose tagline is “enter a world of assassination” (I still always hear the Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory song when I read that) puts such an emphasis on not killing people. Going in guns blazing is a really, really bad choice here, and while you CAN do it, it’ll get you plastered all over the evening news; not great for a professional ghost. As a result, the game does a lot to humanize even random nonessential NPCs, giving them habits, quirks, and mannerisms that make them feel more convincing.

One of the things that this Hitman game removes is the omniscient map. In its place is an Assassin’s Creed-style sensory mode, which slows time slightly and lets you see people (and identify your target(s)) through walls, but not the actual layouts of the rooms. It makes the game feel more tense, as I can’t simply hide in a closet and watch the map to study patterns anymore, I actually have to mingle and put myself at risk to gather information.

As I write that last sentence, a thought just clicked for me– I talk about wanting more verbs in video games. Hitman gives me a bunch of interesting verbs, but among them is “gather information”. It’s just moving around and looking around and finding opportunities, but in the game that’s interesting, and is an active, fully-featured part of the game. I can look around and see that some parts of a level are guarded by a particular type of NPC, and others are guarded by a different kind. I can intuit what kinds of disguises I’d need to fit in various places, and see how all the moving parts link together to give me openings to be where I need to be.

Like Thief, and to some extent Dishonored, Hitman is a game that I personally love because it really rewards me for being precise, planning, and executing cleanly. I’m rewarded for outsmarting the level, not brute forcing it. I don’t yet know how I feel about it being presented as an episodic game, because I’ve always found the Hitman series’ metastory to be fascinating and I want more of it, but for the $15 entry fee, I’m pretty okay with what I’ve gotten to play. Pretty good odds I purchase the “upgrade pack” to get the full game later on.

A Statement vs A Discussion

I’ve been mulling over this post in my head for several days now, and still haven’t formed a clear picture of what I want to say. Rather than continuing to spin on it, we’ll see if putting text to screen makes things more coherent. Here’s hoping.

tom-clancys-the-division-listing-thumb-01-ps4-us-15jun15

I love the Division. I hate the Division. It represents a path forward for MMOs that’s been sorely lacking for a decade now. It is chock full of some incredibly high-fidelity, compelling content. It also has content that makes my stomach turn, and it is very clear that it’s doing so intentionally. At times, the game intentionally tries to make me feel uncomfortable, and succeeds.

It manages to be a surprisingly inclusive game, with characters from all walks of life– it’s casually pro-LGBT and has some really great female characters who, from my perspective, feel like powerful women, not just dudes with boobs. One such character is why a friend of mine stopped playing the game. Video games tend not to put women in “lead” roles, either as heroes or villains. In the Division (spoilers to the end of this paragraph), I wound up facing a gang leader who was a black woman, and who, during the fight, hurled a variety of poignant epithets and taunts, one of which commented “oh, so you’re a cop, and you’re going to shoot me because I’m a black woman, is that it?”

It’s a nasty line, and it’s extremely effective. So effective that, like I said, at least one friend of mine up and quit the game right there. It links into my biggest problem with The Division, one that I’ve mentioned on the podcast: it asks questions, but doesn’t give me the ability to answer them. My only solution to a problem is to shoot and kill someone.

The world of the Division is a world of desperate people trying to cling to whatever little they have, and, in the chaos, warlords of various stripes amassing followers and carving out territory. You, as the player, are literally no different– you carve out territory in the name of making it “safe” (for you and yours) and kill anyone who gets in your way. It’s exactly what every other faction in the game is doing, and in-game ambience even spells this out explicitly. There’s a talk radio station that you can listen in on, where a slowly-freaking-out host goes on about your group, the titular Division, and asks if it’s really okay for a bunch of sleeper agents to come in and start using lethal force on whoever looks at them wrong.

As a player, I have no answer to this. My only solution to a problem is to shoot and kill someone.

What I crave in the Division is a dialogue, with the game and with the people in it. I want to be the last bastion of civilization that restores order and peace, not just the successful warlord that managed to kill everyone opposing them. The game makes a number of statements– “desperate times call for desperate measures” and asks if the ends justify the means, but doesn’t give me the ability to think about and answer that question. It uses uncomfortable situations not to open a dialogue, but for shock value. It’s disturbing, and there is no way for me to take a moral high ground or even ideologically defend myself.

At the same time, this is a game that represents what I’ve wanted in MMOs for a while– a richly-detailed world that my friends and I can jump into and have fun playing. An MMO where combat is *fun* and every encounter feels enjoyable and meaningful. A group system that doesn’t adhere to the standard “trinity” roles but has the ability for party members to fill specific niches that they come up with themselves.

I love what the Division represents, I just wish it wasn’t laced with so much stuff that bothers me deeply. As mentioned in the podcast, if I could buy The Secret World set in the Division’s engine and gameplay, I would buy that game yesterday and still be playing it instead of writing this post.

I haven’t been this conflicted about a game in a while. Maybe that’s the dialogue.

Uncertain Dip

This is a post about food. dealwithit.jpg

I have a small holiday dip sampler sitting in my kitchen, containing perhaps the strangest variety of semiliquids I’ve seen in a while. I’ve had them since visiting my parents over the holidays, and while they’re not in any danger whatsoever of expiring, I’ve been trying (with no luck) to figure out what to do with them. You’d think this would be easy. “Dip stuff in them, Tam, obviously,” but these dips defy simple use.

244b1c110fa0282676effaf9da469fd3

One of them is fairly straightforward. It’s “Raspberry Honey Mustard Pretzel Dip”, which is pretty obvious as far as use-case. It’s still sealed, because I haven’t gone out to find pretzel sticks appropriate for dipping, but I’m still kind of side-eyeing the “raspberry” part of the experience. I’m not entirely sure where the association between “raspberry” and “mustard” came from, or if it even makes sense. I like both things, but I haven’t quite worked up the wherewithal to dip a finger in and taste it. Having now realized how silly that sounds, I’ve now opened the jar and, welp, it tastes unsurprisingly like raspberries and honey mustard. It’s going to take a particular kind of pretzel to make this work, and I’m now kind of glad I didn’t just pick up some random pretzels to try. It’s good, just… weird, especially with the mustard seeds and what look like bits of raspberry mixed in.

Also in the “good but weird” category is the Chocolate S’mores Dip. This one I have dipped a finger in to try at least once or twice or maybe a few times. It’s about the consistency of a thick aioli or warm Nutella, a bit too watery to spread on bread but a bit too thick to dip cookies in easily. I have no idea what is even supposed to be dipped in here, and the jar is not really helpful in this regard. It does taste a lot like s’mores, though, with a marshmallow and graham cracker hint alongside the chocolate. Having discussed this particular dip with Ashgar, I think he’s right and that while nothing I dip into it will be “appropriate”, pretty much whatever I dip into it is going to be delicious. Spoilers, I’m probably dipping pretzels in this.

The next weird jar is “Roasted Pineapple and Habanero Dip”, which seems to suggest that both things are roasted. I’m not really opposed to it, but it’s a bit strange. It’s about the consistency of the strawberry drizzle you get on some cheesecakes, making it fairly unsuitable for any kind of dipping whatsoever. It’s also way too sweet, cloying, and rich to be a sauce, though I entertained the idea of marinating some chicken in it until I tasted it. As an aside, I kind of love the combination of pineapple and hot peppers, so while I would otherwise write this off as a wasted jar, I’m going to find some use for it. Pretzels? Pretzels.

The last jar is labelled “Chocolate Caramel & Sea Salt Sauce”. I’m vaguely hoping there’s a missing comma in there, and while I’m used to salted caramel, I rarely see them separated. Also, this is apparently a “sauce”, not a “dip”, and since all of these jars are from the same company, I feel like I could use the differences between this one and the s’mores dip to figure out what they think the difference is. Opening the jar, it’s about the consistency of thick ganache or maybe wet fondant, so, much thicker than any of the contents of the other jars by far. It also tastes like the label suggests– chocolate caramels with some sea salt. It’s frankly pretty weird, and I’m not sure how to dip pretzels into it, so I might have to get creative.

It’s finals week, I’ve been writing almost the entire day, and I’ve just dropped a little more than six hundred and fifty words about jars in my kitchen and their contents, as well as my current odd pretzel craving. It might be time for bed.

On Foes

Video games are pretty heavily predicated on giving you some kind of opponent to clash with. Whether that’s another player, AI-controlled opponents, the game world itself, or the gameplay mechanics, games basically set you up with an opponent to see if you or they/it can achieve victory.

fencing_4_lg

A discussion we had about The Division over the weekend got me thinking about enemies that appeal vs don’t. Ashgar mentioned that he didn’t like that the Division pitted you, a squishy human, against other squishy humans with realistic guns. We went into a bit of depth on the podcast this week, how The Division is an excellent game as long as you don’t think about what you’re actually doing too hard.

That being said, The Division offers me enemies I find compelling, far more than, say, Warframe or Destiny. I want to face opponents with motivations I can at least understand, who aren’t mustache-twirling evil for the sake of being evil. It’s a big part of the reason I don’t go in much for games about aliens or monsters; unless there’s some kind of sentience that can be communicated with, there’s not really much to understand other than “it’s trying to hurt me, I must stop it,” which feels shallow. I do wish that in The Division as well as other games, there were more nuanced ways of dealing with enemies– we talked about nonlethal takedowns and it’s one of my favorite parts of games like Deus Ex and Dishonored.

I remember playing Turok: Dinosaur Hunter quite a while back and finding it boring. Sure, the enemies were varied and behaved differently, but they were mostly dinosaurs and wild beasts. There didn’t feel like there was any depth there or any possible interaction other than “well, hope I don’t run into one of these because it’ll try to eat me”. Even when interactions have broken down to the point where the primary interaction is violence, I still like to know I’m dealing with opponents who are (presumably) making their own decisions, even if those decisions put us in conflict.

It’s why I don’t like the whole zombie craze. It’s just dinosaurs with a different skin, another mindless opponent that is little more than a strength and endurance test. I prefer to be tested on my agility or intellect– I have more fun when I’m proving I’m faster or smarter than my opponents, not bigger or tougher. Opponents that test neither agility nor intellect are boring to me, and a lot of games that pit you against non-human-equivalent enemies will have foes that are FAR more agile than you are, if they’re agile at all, or big, slow, lumbering bosses that aren’t so much an agility test as a timing test.

One of the reasons I like Warframe so much is because I play light, agile frames that move faster and more adeptly than my enemies. Even in big, tanky frames I’m more agile and more maneuverable than a majority of enemies, which is very satisfying.

At a narrative level, I like games that pit me against foes that make me think about my own motivations (and, ideally, let me act upon those thoughts). In Dishonored and Deus Ex, it quickly became apparent that the average guard or thug was just someone doing their job, not intrinsically tied to whatever awful thing I was trying to stop. They’re basically innocents, doing what they need to for a paycheck or because they’ve been misled into believing they’re right. Those games let me discover that, and then avoid harming innocents. Hitman, a game literally about assassination, actually puts a lot of focus and reward on being nonviolent, because you’re often in public places or otherwise surrounded by innocents who aren’t connected to your target; hurting them is unjustifiable.

I prefer to see my opponents in games as people, rather than just targets, but that comes with the additional demand that I be able to treat them in a way that feels sensible, even if that does mean open violence with the knowledge that the organization or ideology I represent is less harmful than the one they represent. If a game is going to make me question the group or philosophy I’m ostensibly linked to, I’d like to be able to act on that uncertainty. My biggest frustration with The Division is that it makes me question the group I’m a part of, but doesn’t give me any space to act on that.

Immersion (The Division)

I have a few game designer friends who visibly twitch at the use of the word “immersion”. It’s a word that’s thrown around a lot both among players and among devs, and it’s often not super well defined. At best, it’s used as a catchall word for being “in the experience”, that sense of feeling like you’re in the game world and not simply playing a game. At worst, it’s a vague descriptor for something someone doesn’t like but can’t really quantify or describe– it “breaks immersion”!

art by Romain Laurent

art by Romain Laurent

It’s a tough thing to pin down, like “fun”, because what one person finds immersive someone else can easily find laughable. Some people never get that feeling like they’re “in the game world”, and trying to describe an immersive experience to them is like talking to a brick wall.

I think a better descriptor would be “attention to detail”. Immersion is the effect, attention to detail is the cause. It’s something I’ve noticed a lot of while playing The Division… pretty much all week. What really stands out to me is the attention to detail throughout the game. Everything from materials making the sounds I expect as I climb over them or shoot them to the believable advertisements and fliers to the desperately-lived-in looking areas you move through adds to the experience. There’s a story, everywhere I go, and there are enough little details that I can interact with to make me feel like I’m jumping over cars and jewelry stores, not textured geometry.

As an example, a car is, functionally, just a piece of cover in the street. The streets are broken up with abandoned cars, very dense, like you’d expect of New York City traffic. A lot of these have been hastily abandoned, and the doors are ajar. You can close them by pressing up against them, and it makes a satisfying “car door closing” sound. It makes the car feel like a car, and not like just another piece of cover in the street.

This past evening, I went into the Dark Zone with a group of friends. The tension is very real in there, but not overwhelming– in a group, I felt safe, and backed up by my teammates. The game’s UI makes it very difficult to tell if a moving person in the distance is an NPC or another player, and our desire to be certain we weren’t shooting other players without meaning to meant we used various tricks (like scan pulses) to find out. It meant that we stuck together, always keeping an eye out in all directions, and moving as a group== just like we felt like we *should*. It’s made even more poignant by the plentiful high-quality drops that you only get to keep if you successfully extract them.

That feeling, that sense of acting within the game the way you feel like you ought to act, or that alignment between your expectations and what is actually happening in the game– that’s immersion. It’s the culmination of all of the little details that add up, and it’s why all of those little things are important. It’s why sitting in chairs in an MMO matters, and why ambient sounds and minor sound effects are vital. It’s why signs you can read are so much more compelling than signs you can’t, and why getting animations just right is so important.

As mentioned before, I’ve spent a ton of time in The Division this week, enough that I’ve been distracted from writing (whoops!). The game itself is much like games I’ve played before– it’s a good cover shooter, and I’ve described it as Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer, fleshed out in a different setting. What keeps me coming back to it thus far are all the little details. The sense of picking up the pieces of a shattered piece of civilization is strong, and it runs through everything from the visuals, to the enemy types, to the collectables (that offer me in-game story bits!), to the fact that I can close people’s abandoned car doors.

Bloodborne (Or: Reminding Myself That I’m Bad At Video Games)

Thanks to a gift card, I picked up a copy of Bloodborne and loaded it up with Kodra this weekend. We put in about two hours and got to the first save point. Long story short, the game wrecked us solidly and unremittingly.

bloodborne cover

We did eventually admit defeat before reaching the next save point, but even so, the game was a lot of fun, just draining. Kodra and I traded off at every death, so roughly once every sixty seconds to ten minutes or so. We died a lot, maybe I mentioned. What keeps it fun, though, is that the game, while unrelentingly difficult, is entirely fair. The rules don’t change on you, and when new rules are introduced, it’s very clear. When I saw a random huge monster guy wandering through a place that I had to break a bunch of boxes to even access, it wasn’t precisely a surprise when it ignored my heavy attack and just grabbed me and squished me.

I think what makes the series of From Software’s games (Souls games, Bloodborne) really compelling is that it changes the philosophy on you. In a lot of games, especially narrative games, the story is the reward– get through this segment to get another bit of story, and keep on going to get more story. You beat a boss because you want to see what happens next, and as a result the game has a vested interest in keeping you on a forward trajectory, seeing more story so you don’t get bored. Victory is the default, and the narrative of the game is predicated on you winning and continuing on. It can safely be assumed that you’re going to win a given encounter.

Not so in Bloodborne. Story is incidental; it’s something you piece together, if at all. The reward is power, and the game makes you want power immediately by making sure you know how much it sucks not to have any. It’s a trope that you die more or less immediately in Souls games, to one of the first enemies you fight, but as above– the game is very fair. You CAN beat that first enemy, if you’re exceptionally skilled, and in general the game rewards you very well for doing so. You want to beat bosses because you shouldn’t be able to; success in the game is an act of defiance, one that the game respects.

It’s that respect that really seals the deal. If you find a cheap, easy way to bypass a nasty fight or exploit some terrain to beat a boss, the game won’t punish you for it. You owe the game nothing, and in return, it owes you nothing. If you swing at an enemy and miss, there’s no aim correction; you forgot to lock on (or didn’t lock onto the right enemy) and the consequences are on you. Play better next time. You found a ledge that the boss can’t reach and can shoot at it, and have enough ammo to take it down without reprisal? Good on you, you beat the boss, you were cleverer than it was. Grind an area until you’re stupidly overpowered before moving on? That’s your choice, do what you need to in order to win.

I really appreciate that in Bloodborne, especially given that there are generally multiple ways to approach each encounter. It took Kodra and I a solid hour to realize that we were playing the game like Bel, methodically fighting and defeating every single enemy in an area before moving on. It was taxing on our resources and took up a lot of time for little return. We quickly discovered abject cowardice and used it to flee further than we’d gotten with overt aggression.

The amount of game space we played in over the course of the day was about half of a Warframe level, or less. Maybe half of one of the smaller starting levels. However, that tiny amount of space was incredibly rich and nuanced, with lots of approaches and lots of things to see and learn. I never felt like we were punished unduly for experimenting, and resources were plentiful enough that we could use them regularly without feeling like they were being wasted. Sure, we died a lot, but we made a lot of progress as far as developing our actual skill at the game.

By the end, we’d graduated from getting murdered by a guy with a rake to dying to some kind of massive tree beast. Progression!

Retellings (SAO: Hollow Fragment)

I just got through beating Sword Art Online: RE Hollow Fragment last night. Overall, I think it’s a reasonably solid game that suffers from being a bit too formulaic and not being quite responsive enough. There are some really interesting mechanics that you can more or less entirely ignore, because you start the game ludicrously overpowered and have very little need to get yet more powerful until very late in the game. The structure of the game is more than a little repetitive, with really predictable patterns.

718206

The game has a lot of really detailed systems, like its damage types, weapon and skill trees, and other details that are almost entirely meaningless because, as Kirito, you start very nearly maxed out in a very strong, versatile skill tree, with just enough points spent in other trees to unlock the most useful stuff. As with a lot of the rest of the game, it’s very true to SAO’s narrative– Kirito is a relentless min-maxer, and when you’re put in control of him, you’ve already got a very nearly optimal character. As a result, there are entire weapon types and ability interactions that I never saw in the game because there didn’t seem to be a reason to bother.

Also in keeping with the series’ narrative, the other characters are scaled in power relative to what you’d expect, meaning that the obvious choice of partner — Asuna — is far and away the best party member to choose, especially because all of her skills more or less perfectly complement what you start with as Kirito. She has a lot of debuff power, which is exactly what Kirito’s dual-wield tree lacks. Because of this, there are entire weapons and partner character choices that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of reason to choose, ever, from a gameplay standpoint.

All of this is largely irrelevant, however, because it’s not what the game is trying to deliver. SAO: Hollow Fragment is giving you the chance to play in the SAO world, and to some extent explore the parts of it that you’re the most interested in. It’s your opportunity, as a player, to break canon and try stuff out that you wanted to see in the show but couldn’t. I wrote about it a few months ago, but the game opens up with this message pretty quickly– Hollow Fragment starts where the Aincrad arc of the show ends, but keeps on going in Aincrad. It’s why you start with a ludicrously powerful Kirito and why you play through “new” content despite knowing what happens in the show; the game makes a point of breaking from the show’s story and writing its own.

What I like about it is that it’s very thorough in its parallel storyline. Bits and pieces that don’t make a lot of sense initially ultimately get revealed as part of a complete retelling of the story, including events that happen after the show’s first arc, but play out differently in Hollow Fragment’s parallel story. The end result is broadly similar, but the details change, and it’s very interesting to see how the various alterations to the “real” story affect the rest of the narrative. Hollow Fragment effectively kicks off a reboot of the series starting from the end of the show’s first arc, and I think that’s a fascinating approach. I only wish the game went a little deeper into that, because the story is fairly light.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that I love reboots, particularly ones that retain as few of the specifics of the original as possible while still keeping the overall essence of the story. My favorite retelling of Romeo and Juliet is the frankly insane neo-90s Leonardo DiCaprio version set in a stylized present-day but using Shakespearean dialogue. I like to see how things could have played out differently with the same pieces. I’m a big fan of the sort of parallel storytelling that Hollow Fragment does because it provides a bunch of new conceptual space to explore that isn’t weighted down by the existing narrative.

Probably my biggest critique of Hollow Fragment is how formulaic it is– it feels less like a game version of the show than it probably should, because the structure of the game doesn’t follow the structure of the show. As much as SAO is about “reaching level 100 and beating the game”, very little of the show’s time is spent showcasing each individual floor, which is entirely what Hollow Fragment does. It makes the game feel both repetitive and frustratingly unlike the show itself, and I feel like the game would have been improved by going all-in on the narrative portions rather than building out level after level of formulaic gameplay.

What frustrates me the most about the game is that it shies away from really exploring this cool alternate narrative it’s created. A lot of the story scenes start to poke at some interesting ramifications of the parallel storyline they’ve set up, but all too often what appears to be a neat story point instead morphs into sudden, cheap fanservice. In the meantime, the game introduces new characters who are supposed to be compelling (and, indeed, who the game’s story centers around to some extent) but are kind of shoved in your face without preamble. It feels, more than anything, like a new player joining a long-running tabletop campaign and being inserted awkwardly into the party. Hey, here’s this random person around town oh look it turns out they know your name NOW THEY’RE YOUR BEST FRIEND no questions asked STOP ASKING QUESTIONS.

You may note that I haven’t talked about the “Hollow Fragment” part of the game, the separate (entire game) that’s added onto what was originally just a climb through Aincrad. As much as the game develops a compelling parallel storyline, it completely failed to hook me on its massive bonus area. My connection there was a character who, right off the bat, doesn’t like me very much, and who I honestly don’t really care much about. She’s probably got a pretty tragic backstory, but quite frankly I have half a dozen other, more developed characters with tragic backstories that I’m a lot more interested in exploring the game with, and the Hollow Area seems to be focused on developing characters that I honestly am not that interested in.

That all having been said, I like the idea of using tie-in games as a springboard for parallel storytelling. If I wanted just a straight retelling of the story I already know, I could watch the show/movie again, but letting me alter the world in a “safe” alternate storyline is really compelling, even as relatively underdeveloped as it is in Hollow Fragment. There’s a really interesting Star Wars game where Kenobi seeks out Leia and makes her a Jedi instead of Luke– completely non-canon, but an interesting space to explore, and a lot more interesting than a game that simply straight retells Star Wars without the pacing and with a hundred times as many stormtroopers to fight.

Also, much like the show did, SAO: Hollow Fragment makes me miss the now-long-gone days of early MMOs, when it was new for everyone and the games were full of surprises, that you shared with everyone you played with.

Coherent, Flexible Strategy

I wrote up a fairly extensive report on my games for this past weekend’s Infinity tournament (here, if you’re curious) and got some interesting feedback. People seemed to like my turn-by-turn commentary about what I was trying to accomplish at any given point and how I planned to go about it, as well as how my plans changed on the fly.

BN-GJ136_chess_J_20150109120327

I’ve talked quite a bit about strategy vs tactics, and I’ve also talked about how I have a “background process” planning ahead most of the time, but I think I rarely go into specifics. Infinity might be a good springboard into my usual day-to-day thought processes, how I stay organized, and possibly some other questions that people have asked me.

When I’m playing Infinity, I’m very focused on what wins me the game. When I suggest strategy, it’s always focused more about what scores points (and thus wins you the game) than how to  handle a specific problem. In general, I find that spending energy finding a specific solution to a specific problem isn’t a terribly efficient approach, and avoiding doing so is a good way to manage my time effectively. Sometimes, a specific solution to a specific problem is unavoidable, but at that point the goal (whatever “wins you the game”) simply won’t happen without that solution, and thus it’s almost not possible for that solution to be inefficient, because there’s no alternative. Efficiency is a relative thing; there’s no real objective baseline for doing something efficiently, just a set of comparisons.

In the tournament this weekend, I was faced with a couple of deeply entrenched enemy units hidden in a tower. Given the opportunity, these units could make my life very difficult, and an explicit goal of the mission was eliminating enemy units. As a result, the goal for my first turn was to neutralize those units as best I could. It was what I needed to accomplish in the first turn, and my planning centered on that. I had a couple of options– I could send a unit from my backfield up to threaten the tower, spending a lot of orders to climb it and then (hopefully) effectively attack both of the targets, or I could send my infiltrator up with a slightly broader toolset. The first option was cost-efficient but time-inefficient; it would cost me rather more orders to move the cheaper unit up safely than to move the infiltrator up. The second option was more expensive in terms of cost– the infiltrator was worth nearly twice as much, and losing her would cost me a valuable reactive toolset, but she would expend far fewer orders moving into position safely. Both would take a lot of focus on that turn, and success for either one was not guaranteed.

As a result, I focused on smaller wins first, to see how my turn would unfold. An apparently quick, easy set of small victories was more time-expensive (cost more orders) than expected, pushing me towards using the infiltrator. I debated scoring a valuable win (in the form of a secondary objective) right away, when I was less likely to be opposed, but I was concerned about being left open to a strong counterattack (in a mission where winning fights is key to victory) and had alternative options for securing that secondary objective in later turns. When I finally started committing the infiltrator, she was discovered almost immediately, forcing me to spend more orders moving troops around to cover her advance and allow her a stealthy approach. It wound up costing me almost as much time (orders) as using the other unit would have, but she was ultimately successful, whereas the other troop would likely not have been. Had I committed the other troop, I probably would have been stymied by various obstacles that the infiltrator was better equipped to handle, and I would have gotten fewer ancillary wins. It was also extremely valuable to focus on smaller wins first, so that I could ensure those were in hand before committing to the larger task.

I apply a lot of this same logic to my day-to-day. I know that I will need several hours to write a paper, and that I also need to run a handful of errands. If I wait to run the errands, they’re a lot more likely to get put off if I wait until the paper is done, and may not get done at all. It’s a quick way for me to get overwhelmed later by lots of little things adding up. Instead, I handle the smaller things first, the “quick wins”, so that they don’t pile up. Run to the bank, get lunch, pay a toll bill, clear out comment spam, send a couple of important e-mails. Maybe a couple hours’ worth of tasks, time that I *could* be spending on the paper, but it keeps my to-do list uncluttered.

I prioritize things based on the energy and time they take to do, and try to keep the total number of things I need to do down as much as possible. I keep track of little things that are nevertheless important to get done (and do them first), bigger things that require a larger time investment (do these once the smaller things are done, to ensure I’m doing that work with a clear head and no distractions), and other things that don’t require my attention right away. I finally picked up a TV remote this morning, while getting my car looked at, because it was a convenient time to get it done. It wasn’t a high priority (it’s been on my radar for months) but it was something I could get done in parallel with something else I was doing.

The less I know about how long it will take me to do something, the more I want to get that thing done last, after other tasks are complete. If I’m not distracted, I can more readily focus on involved tasks, and if it takes longer than expected to get done, I’m (usually) not sacrificing anything else. The nice part about it is that I can then adapt my planning to however long it takes to get things done, and prioritize based on what needs to happen that day. I’ve found that I very rarely have single large overwhelming tasks that are top priority– when they do come up, I can focus entirely on them because I don’t have a long task backlog (because I’ve complete tasks-of-opportunity all along the way).

It’s a system that works for me, and it keeps my day-to-day strategic planning organized and complete. I complete what I need to and don’t have to worry about “death by a thousand cuts”, and I very rarely forget to do things, because I get things done immediately as they crop up as opposed to waiting. To return to the Infinity example one last time, partway through one of my games this past weekend I noticed a nice set of opportunities– neither were part of my strategy for the turn, but they were valuable enough that I could deal with them immediately and return to my longer-term plan. Dealing with them made my long-term strategy easier and less stressful, and while it was a minor setback in terms of time, it brought me out ahead in the end.

Short Fiction Monday: Midsummer

Some character profiles, bits and pieces of something I don’t yet know the shape of. ]

Plums_early_morning

I had just started work in a new city when I met Summer Mei. I was still unpacking, boxes littering the apartment and piling up in the corners. She heard me banging around up the stairs, trying to wrestle a bunch of dishes and assorted cookware up into my apartment, and came out to see what the noise was. She saw me struggling and immediately grabbed the other end of the box.

“Here. I have this end.” I couldn’t quite place her accent– American, maybe, but I could see her eyes and her expression.

Watching and reading people is my job; I’m a professional negotiator and I worked for years in college as a salesperson. The woman who helped me with the box had an air about her that made me instantly feel guilty about making noise, about taking up space at all. I’d seen her face as she left the apartment, cold and annoyed, and I saw the mental calculations she did– helping me would rid her of the annoyance faster. I appreciated her help, but it made me feel very small. Despite the two of us being about the same height– I estimated that we were just about the same size, she had a presence that made her seem taller, more central, more real. I wanted to fade into the background.

It also became apparent quickly that she was much stronger than I was. She could have carried the box of kitchenware herself, easily, possibly with one arm. I wondered if this was another calculation– did she not want to waste time with the usual polite back-and-forth that would ensue if she offered to just take it herself?

“You’ve got the silver two-door. Nice car.” I blinked. “How’d you know–”

“Trunk’s open, saw the other box like this one in it. I mean, lucky guess.” She grinned, then, an expressive, mischievous look that transformed her entire face. I was grinning back before I realized it. I wondered whether the cold, calculating face she’d worn a moment ago or this beaming, insouciant one was more “her”, a better window into the person behind the expression. Maybe both.

The two of us got the box up to my apartment easily, and as she stepped through the doorway, years of childhood etiquette lessons crashed down on me and I instantly wished I had something to offer my guest. Tea, I could make tea. I mentally flipped through the boxes that were strewn about the place to remember where I’d kept the pot, cups, and leaves. Satisfied that I could at least find those, I spoke up.

“Thanks so much for the help. Can I offer you some tea?” I expected her to decline– after all, I was fairly sure she was only helping me to minimize the time she spent distracted by banging dishes. I needed to offer, though; I would have felt guilty about it for weeks if I hadn’t, and I didn’t expect I’d see my neighbor much after today. I saw a flicker of uncertainty cross her face, another glimpse of that calculating expression, before the bright smile returned. I decided I was going to choose to believe that the smile was more “her”.

“Sure, yeah, I can do that. Let me close up some stuff downstairs, I’ll be right back, yeah?” I nodded, and she bobbed a quick bow as she left, backing out of the doorway. In the instant between her turning down the stairs and my front door closing, I caught a glimpse of the holster at her back. I’d missed it while wrestling with the box, and we’d been facing each other the whole time we’d carried it up the stairs, but seeing it now left me stunned. Guns were illegal here, what was she doing with one? Was she a cop, maybe? I thought cops had to be in uniform to carry weapons. Something else? My curiosity overwhelmed me as I unpacked tea on autopilot. Some deeply-rooted etiquette habit managed to even find some cookies in one of the boxes to go with the tea, and I set up a table and some chairs while waiting for water to boil and speculating wildly about this woman I’d just met.

She came back with a knock on the door, and held up a bag of tortilla chips and a bowl of something green sheepishly. “I didn’t have much that went with tea, but I’ve got some chips and…” She searched for a word, finally making a kind of duck sound. I had no idea what she was talking about, but I assumed it was the green stuff. A dip, maybe? Definitely an American accent.

“Come on in, it should be almost ready.” I smiled, more comfortable in my own home, serving tea to a guest.

“Thanks,” she paused, “huh, I didn’t catch your name. I’m Summer Mei.” I couldn’t help chuckling, hearing the name of this woman who was in so many ways my opposite. She narrowed her eyes. “What’s so funny?”

“Nothing, nothing, I’m sorry. Just a funny coincidence. I’m Ciruela Winters.” I watched Summer blink, and I waited to see how much she picked up on. After a moment of mouthing my first name, she burst out laughing.

“What the hell is it about plums? I don’t even like plums.” That’s at least three languages she’s familiar with. Interesting. I grinned in return, I also can’t stand plums. We shared a laugh, then I poured the tea.

“You know, Winters. I’m going out for drinks tonight, want to come with? There’s a new place I want to try, and if it sucks, I want someone else to complain with.”

I thought of all the boxes I still had to unpack, and how little I had to spend on frivolous things like drinks, how I barely knew this woman, and a long list of other practical considerations that screamed “don’t do this, Cir”.

“I mean, don’t worry if you need to unpack or anything, I definitely know what it’s like to unpack. Figured you might want to unwind, though.”

Screw it. I threw the list of reasons not to out.

“Oh, this all can wait. Sure, I’ll go out tonight. Sounds fun!”

This is how I met Summer Mei. I’m still trying to decide if it was the biggest adventure of my life or the worst mistake I’ve ever made.

The Value of a Game

Recently, a handful of game devs, mainly in the indie space, have started speaking out to players who question whether or not a game is worth the price being asked. It’s an interesting discussion, because it starts to expose the otherwise opaque economic workings of game development, and it brings up some issues that have been growing for a while now.

Piggy_on_Money1

The basic gist is that a player might pick up a new indie title for $15 or $20, complete it in two hours or less, and think about a refund on Steam, or complain that the game isn’t worthwhile for the price they paid. It asks the question of how much a game is worth to players, and whether or not that’s enough to keep a game developer afloat. For a lot of indies, it doesn’t appear to be. An impassioned forum response by a Firewatch dev talks about how long it took to develop the game and how that relates to paying themselves minimum wage. A similar reply by a Brigador dev breaks down exactly why their game costs $20, with a surprising amount of transparency.

It’s a discussion that hasn’t come up previously, not between devs and players directly. There’s an expectation of sorts that game devs are imperious, detached, and separate from players. We’ve come to expect an air of mystery, a sense that the devs know things we don’t and are comfortable in their ivory towers, so much so that when a game isn’t taking the direction we want, we’re quick to siege that ivory tower, not realizing that it’s often less a tower than a shack, and less ivory that cardboard and scrap metal.

I’ve spent long enough working in games to know that content is expensive. It costs a lot to make, in time, resources, and manpower. Content creation is a joint effort between multiple different skillsets– art generating assets, tech creating the infrastructure, audio bringing in sound, design pulling it all together, and QA ironing out the bugs– and that’s a bare minimum. Generating an hour’s worth of content can take a month or more of time from start to finish. The more elaborate the content, the longer it takes.

The question becomes, is the return on investment for creating content worth it? We love content, we love consuming it, but by and large we don’t want to pay for it. Games haven’t increased in base cost in a decade– by comparison, the average movie ticket has increased in price by 30% in the last decade. Movie tickets are a decent comparison to games, because they follow a lot of the same rules– they have a brief window of relevance (2 weeks to a month), after which sales drop off immensely, they’re expensive to make, rely on having a lot of people see them, and are content-driven works. Yet, movies have gone up in price 30% on average, whereas games have stayed the same. Why aren’t games $80?

Players, in large part, aren’t willing to pay $80 for a game, regardless of how much it costs to make. Many refuse to buy at the $60 price point, and the existence of services like Steam are invaluable for extending the lifespan of a game much longer than it otherwise would have been– games only survive on store shelves for a few weeks, tops, if they even show up on shelves. The advent of DLC has filled in the gap between the current games price point and the cost of creation, but people balk at this.

Instead, we wait for Steam sales, or pre-sale deals, or Game of the Year editions, or whatever will let us get away with spending less on a game. On the consumer side, the pull is towards cheaper and cheaper games, and on the development side, margins get thinner and the ability to absorb risk drops, with many studios simply not making enough to stay afloat.

It begs the question of whether or not the ROI on content is ultimately worth it. Star Wars: Battlefront has clearly decided that it’s not– there’s no campaign mode, and regardless of the frustration from players at this lack, as of January it was exceeding sales projections. Other games have similarly stopped bothering with story modes and other poor-ROI inclusions; the modern MMO is a lot more like a series of lobbies than an open world, and more and more games are dropping singleplayer entirely, or are purely singleplayer experiences and drop multiplayer entirely.

My big fear is that it isn’t, and what we’ve been seeing with shorter and shorter games is the natural reduction of story content because it’s simply too expensive to produce. It’s not a fast process, but I feel like there’s a pretty clear map of average game length that trends downwards starting in the early-to-mid 2000s and continues trending downward now. Games with a lot of content tend to spread that content very thin, or fill it up with relatively trivial things that are very cheap to produce.

A big problem with all of this is that the inherent instability of the games industry means there isn’t a lot of institutional knowledge over long periods of time to reduce the cost of creating content. Most teams are starting fresh with every new game, and it’s very difficult to see long-term trends on the development side. The studios that manage to stick around and develop institutional knowledge tend to release excellent game after excellent game, but getting there is very rare, and often requires being in the right place at the right time, with a lucky release.

This is what’s currently swirling around in my head from a “future of gaming” standpoint. There aren’t that many examples of content creation to draw from as a direction for games to go to stabilize and become less luck-driven, and the trend for consumers continues to be to pay less and less for content. Now, this trend is squeezing games that don’t have the margins to absorb it, and don’t have the resources to recoup the costs elsewhere (via DLC or otherwise). I’m interested to see where it goes, because I’m not sure how it resolves.