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.


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.


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. ]


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.


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.

VR’s Killer App

As more and more excited, breathless news comes out of this iteration of the virtual reality push, it’s hard for me not to feel like this all isn’t really familiar. It seems like I’ve heard the same promises, the same giddy excitement, and the same “this is going to change everything” sentiments that existed the last (few) time(s) this circle has come around. Back then, Virtual Reality was a great big helmet you wore with screens for your eyes, and you looked around and waved your arms to interact with an immersive 3D… wait.


Frankly, I have yet to hear what’s different this time. What’s the magic sauce that’s going to get millions of customers to buy a giant headset for a lot of money when they weren’t willing to do it the last time? I keep hearing the promises— movies rendered in glorious 360-degree panorama, games so immersive you’ll swear you aren’t in your living room with a big helmet on, life-changing experiences that you could never have in reality, but in VR it’s like you’re there. I don’t doubt that any of these things could happen, but they’re the amazing things you get on a mature platform. The best games of a console generation are rarely the release titles– it takes a while for developers to get comfortable with the hardware and really spend time investing in it.

To get those really awesome, mature-interface applications, you need a product with a userbase worth investing in. You need a spark that drives people to absolutely need that VR helmet. I feel like game consoles are a good analogue– consoles watch for exclusives because they all want that one killer app that makes everyone absolutely need to buy it. Even late in a console’s lifecycle, those apps are sought out, because they’ll sell consoles and grow that ever-critical userbase. Almost every major console release has a significant uptick corresponding to a massive, blockbuster release, that game everyone just has to have that drives not just game sales, but console sales as well.

There’s likely a business/marketing term for this kind of product that I don’t know; I know the term as “killer app”, because that’s what I’ve seen on the consumer side. These killer apps have a lot of things in common– they’re big, with very wide appeal, and very sticky. For consoles, they’re games that people play for hundreds of hours, sometimes they’re the only game people own on their console and STILL play it every night. They’re that experience you just can’t get anywhere else.

Why did smartphones take off when 3D TVs didn’t? 3D TVs are/were the new hotness in living room entertainment– buy this fancy TV and wear goggles while you watch to have an unparalleled moviegoing experience. Problem is, you can have an experience about as good without the need for (multiple pairs of) goggles that you have to wear in your own home every time you want to watch a movie. The addition of 3D is not compelling enough to sell millions of TVs, despite the marketing push. Smartphones, however, gave us something we didn’t realize we wanted but quickly couldn’t live without: easy Internet at our fingertips at all times. The killer app for smartphones wasn’t programmable alarms, or fancy touchscreens, or the camera, or the built-in camera or notepad apps. Those things are nice, but being able to easily check e-mail and browse the web and get GPS directions got us hooked. The more elaborate apps came later, once smartphones became ubiquitous. Arguably, these things weren’t even new, they were just presented in a user-friendly way when before they were obtuse, expensive, and unfun to use.

So. What is it that VR is bringing to the table, at launch, that’s going to move millions of units and build up a userbase big enough to make investing in cool 3D movies, immersive VR games, and promising virtual classrooms all worth it? I still don’t know. The latest thing I’ve seen touted as “the reason to get VR” is an astronaut sim– float around in space and be an astronaut. It’s got the same problems as all of the other launch VR apps; it’s a cool experience for about ten or twenty minutes and then you’re done, telling your friend who showed you the app that it was really immersive and thanks for showing that to me, that was awesome and then you go home, and, importantly, DON’T instantly go out to your local electronics store to buy one for yourself.

As an aside, I think Augmented Reality (AR) is much more likely to catch on, because the instant applications are much more obvious. Get a decent HUD on a pair of glasses, get a set of haptic-feedback gloves (or even just fingertip sensors), and plug both into your laptop. Now you have a computing space that doesn’t require a massive desk and multiple monitors, yet gives you more (virtualized) screen real estate than even the most elaborate monitor setup. You can get as much work done on the bus as you can in your office, and you don’t need a huge, bulky PC or even a table to set down your laptop. It doesn’t require terribly much in the way of technological breakthroughs, and you don’t need a screaming fast laptop to get the full benefit. That’s the hook, and once you get enough users sold by that (relatively-easy-to-deliver) promise, then you can start looking at the really exciting AR apps.

In the meantime, however, I still don’t know what problem VR is solving, or what app is going to suddenly make masses of people decide that this time, they do in fact want to wear a big headset. It’s a massive hurdle for VR to get over– we’ve proven time and again that people just don’t want to wear a massive thing on their heads for casual entertainment. Even 3D glasses for the TV was too much. I’d love to see VR become a thing, it’s been the promise of the future since I was a kid, but I still can’t tell you what would get me to plunk down a few hundred for an Oculus Rift or similar, and I like that hardware.

I’d like to be proven wrong, but I’m still waiting to see how it might happen.

As Long As It’s Well-Written

I’ve been playing more of the Shadowrun: Hong Kong Extended Edition content– the post-game storyline that ties up some loose ends that the main story resolves but doesn’t quite clean up. It’s really satisfying, because (avoiding spoilers) some characters at the end of the main storyline don’t get the comeuppance I’d like to have had the chance to deliver, and while that’s a very Shadowrun-feeling thing, it’s nice to be able to go after them in the epilogue.


The Shadowrun games are, mechanically, a lot like many other games out there. XCOM is a superior tactical shooter in many ways, Satellite Reign does some more creative stuff with real-time stealth and cover, and most turn-based isometric tactical games offer a lot more functional customization than Shadowrun does. I still keep coming back to it over those other games, and it’s based on one key feature that beats out its competition: writing.

A manager of mine used to half-jokingly tease our team’s (excellent) writer when asked about some narrative plan or plot twist. Do what you like, he’d say, “as long as it’s well-written”. Different game, different set of people, but that sentiment really resonates. I keep coming back to Shadowrun because I adore the writing. It’s nothing fancy, no voiceovers, lots of text in boxes, very old-school in that regard, but it consistently sets the mood, fills in details without getting bogged down in them, and makes me laugh, seethe, and sigh at various times. It introduced me to a slew of characters that, on paper, I liked none of, and by the end of the game I was completely attached to.

More than anything, it inspires me to write my own stuff, and gives me ideas. It provides little hooks, various options, and lots of choices throughout the game. It sets up no-win situations that are still satisfying in the end, and I’ve rarely if ever felt like I’ve been forced down a choice that I didn’t want. There’s lot of side content, lots of little extra details filling out the world and suggesting that it *is* a world, just one that I’m seeing only a small part of, and other bits in glimpses. In and among all of this, it manages to surprise me in ways I don’t expect. It’s not just that there are plot twists, because I see those coming, it’s that the twists still happen in ways that I didn’t expect, that still make sense.

I place a lot of value on writing that can surprise me; I’ve read a lot and have seen the same tropes unfold in lots of different ways, so seeing something I’m familiar with flipped a slightly different way, or seeing something I didn’t expect at all tends to stick with me. Good narrative sells me really quickly on an experience, and I’m willing to trade fidelity in a lot of other things to get it. I’m reminded of Warframe here, and how a good game became enthralling when the storytelling suddenly improved dramatically. I like almost nothing about the gameplay presentation of Persona 3 Portable, especially after having played the more refined Persona 4, but the story was compelling enough to hook me.

In the meantime, there are plenty of truly excellent games where the narrative (or lack thereof) leaves me wanting. I love Elite: Dangerous’ gameplay, but the lack of any compelling storytelling keeps me from bothering to log in. Star Wars: Battlefront’s lack of a campaign left me ultimately unsatisfied with the game, despite it being incredibly fun in other ways– I even loved CoD: Modern Warfare because of its excellent single-player campaign. I started playing Dex, and while the game’s setup and art was really interesting, the writing turned me off.

I’ve been listening to Bel — Mr. “I don’t care about story just give me something to fight” himself — talk about the Division, and what I hear from him is how enthused he is about the setting and the story they’ve set up. The very first thing he linked me was a youtuber deep-diving into the game’s story, piecing together scraps to see how much he could uncover. Story matters, and having context makes a huge difference.

As it turns out, I’ll play pretty much any game… as long as it’s well-written.

A Bit of Fantastic

We talked a bit on this weekend’s podcast about The Division. It’s a game I feel like I’d really enjoy if I were playing it with friends, though I’m pretty sure I heard at least one person audibly check out at the point where it became clear there was neither sorcery nor swords of any kind, including indistinguishable-from-magic technology.

credit: Dennis Chan

credit: Dennis Chan

I’m in a similar boat– the game is much more interesting than I expected (I was a bit cynical about it) and honestly looks like it could be a lot of fun. I just wish there was a bit more fantasy in it. I feel like I’m roaming the streets of modern-day New York, and while it’s gorgeously rendered and surprisingly detailed, I can also hop a flight and literally walk around those locations myself. It’s just barely enough escapism for me to enjoy, and I can completely understand how it wouldn’t be enough for someone else. I tend to like my “modern” to be followed by “supernatural” as far as settings go.

That having been said, I loved Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer, and like I’ve said elsewhere, The Division feels like a deeper, more varied, more refined, and more complete version of that, just in a different setting. I’m still pretty likely to pick it up and give it a go at some point. In the meantime, I’ve continued to play a TON of Warframe, which has continually managed to surprise me and get more interesting.

I do keep thinking about that key amount of fantasy it takes to make something compelling. It’s a delicate threshold, and different for everyone. Too much fantasy, and you can’t relate to it enough to get into it, and too little and it feels boring. I know some people who instantly check out of entertainment that has magic or advanced technology of pretty much any kind, and I know others for whom there’s a minimum threshold of one or the other (or both) that has to exist before they’re interested. Personally, I like at least a little bit of fantasy, but I’ve run into things that are just too much for me to get invested in.

Weirdly, what I’m looking for lately is a game where I can really appreciate the worldbuilding. I want to walk around fantastic cities and see people living everyday lives, and live part of a fantasy, virtual life myself. I’d boot up Deus Ex again if I couldn’t still remember it so well; there’s something really awesome about walking around its cyberpunk cities among ordinary people, doing largely ordinary things. It’s part of why I picked up Cradle, the first-person sci-fi puzzle game that held such promise but ultimately disappointed me.

I’m waiting on a few games that might scratch that itch– I really want to play through Dreamfall Chronicles once the season is complete, since there’s a lot of cool wandering through a real-feeling cyberpunk city there. I’m tentatively hopeful for CD Projekt Red’s cyberpunk game, though I’m leery thanks to The Witcher– not a game that meshes well with my tastes. I continue to wait for Persona 4, and I’m actually excited about Final Fantasy XV thanks to the demo; it’s not without some obvious flaws, but I think it’ll be fun anyway.

Kind of a rambling post today, I’m having the gaming equivalent of having a craving for something specific but not quite being able to place what that specific thing is. This post is trying to put words to that. If anyone’s got good recommendations for an open-world cyberpunk or otherwise sci-fi game, I’m open to suggestions!

Where’ve you been, Tam?

It’s been a crazy few weeks. I started a new job (part-time, but I’m trying to ramp up quickly) while juggling full-time classwork and wrapping up some side projects. Then, the site goes belly-up and locks me out. A bunch of backend corruption caused me to have to reinstall and restore pretty much everything; we’ve been working from a cache for the last week.

The short version is, for the first time in a very long time, I haven’t had the spare energy to write, so the site worked through my post buffer and then, this week, ran out of material. At any rate, things should hopefully be calming down somewhat soon and we can return to regularly scheduled posts.

As for what I’ve been doing lately, game-wise, I’ve been playing a LOT of Warframe. The game really appeals to me once I found my niche in it, and I’ve been playing it more or less to the exclusion of all else recently. I have some thoughts percolating on it and also on MMOs, kind of the present and future of persistent online gaming (is there any other kind anymore?), but it’s all half-baked. I want to get a bit deeper into the game and see how various things hold up before I go blathering about one system or design philosophy or another.

On the business/management side, I’m doing a lot with finance and operations management lately, which doesn’t necessarily make for terribly compelling blog posts (it’s interesting for me, but I don’t know that I need to inflict it on other people).

At any rate, hopefully things will be calming down here soon and I can get back to regular posting. I don’t have Bel’s relentless devotion to posting even when he’s so sick he’s basically dying; I try to post only when I have something to say, and recently I’ve been listening a lot more than talking.

See you next week!