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My Bad Dark Souls Take

(Disclaimer: I don’t play Souls games and I have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about.)

So I have this theory that a big part of why Dark Souls games attract so much “git gud” toxicity is because they actually aren’t that hard.

A common argument for why Souls games don’t need easy modes is because they already have implicit difficulty options and things you can do in-game to make the game harder or easier on yourself. Figuring out which builds are overpowered and how you can increase your self-heal abilities and so forth isn’t as obvious as picking a difficulty option from a menu, but it does integrate better into the game’s world. This fits with these games' trend of relying on atmosphere and obliqueness rather than direct explanations, drawing the player in to learn through exploration and experimentation (though of course in the internet age you can also just check the wiki), and overall provide an experience of encountering somewhat difficult but ultimately conquerable challenges and learning to overcome them. The games are supposed to be about mastery, so they are intended to be masterable.

And, like, that sounds pretty cool, right? It’s not what I look for but I get why these games are well-liked.

But the combined result of these design decisions is that the games look hard when actually they are inscrutable. And I think that naturally encourages a lot of hostile bullshit signaling/gatekeeping that frames the games as especially difficult and the people who can handle them as just better.

For a game (or any skill) that’s actually exceptionally difficult, you generally don’t see top performers saying “git gud.” They’re much more likely to share useful advice, because that advice isn’t enough. Knowing what to do doesn’t take someone all the way if they still need tons of practice and skill to actually pull it off, and in those cases telling people what to do actually makes the top performer look more skilled. It shows that they aren’t threatened by giving other people the tools to get on their level, and also equips those others to understand just how good the expert is since matching their performance is still quite difficult even knowing exactly how to do it in theory.

On the other hand, if there’s just some slightly esoteric information you need and that’s most of the difference between success and failure, the opposite is true. Giving people that info would make them see how easy it is to get on the “expert” level, thus threatening experts' superiority. So if you’re trying to protect that superiority, you’ll guard that info like the password to a secret club.

Because the Souls games are hard to read, somewhat difficult, and quite masterable once you know the secrets, they’re in a sweet spot where “secret club” membership is easy enough to attain that the group is pretty large and thus will have a lot of status-seekers in it, but small enough that there are plenty of non-members to exclude and show off to, who will think the game is hard and that being an expert in it is impressive.

I suspect that if the games were more readable, they wouldn’t have a reputation as being super hard, and status-seekers wouldn’t flock to them the way they do and basically nobody would be telling others to git gud. If for some reason you want that kind of community around your game, make it somewhat hard to play but definitely hard to read.

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Player Exploitation and Memetic Antibodies

Sometimes I’m glad I grew up when video games weren’t very good yet.

There were certainly good individual games here and there (Tetris is probably the most perfect video game ever made, and that’s from the mid-to-late 1980s depending which versions you count). But the medium itself was niche and unpolished. The technology was weak, the audience was small, and best practices for design and marketing weren’t yet known. Video games were still a cottage industry.

Over time, the tech improved and the industry learned to make better use of it. The audience increased along with the potential revenue, resulting in increased investment by creators to capture bigger slices of a growing pie, and now global annual sales are measured in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

Games are now a lot better. But better at what? Better for whom? The same advances that have enabled vast improvements in the player experience have also enabled vast improvements in player exploitation.

I think it was a tremendous advantage for me that I was playing games during the earlier experiments in these spaces, when exploitation methods were clumsy and transparent compared to their current level of refinement and subtlety.

The first gacha game I ever played was MonTowers, which didn’t do a great job encouraging the player to spend money. After playing for a while, I decided to buy some currency anyway since I’d been having fun with this free game and and it felt fair to support the creator with a few bucks. The purchase had no noticeable effect on my experience of the game, so I pretty quickly concluded the whole thing was dumb and I have spent literally zero dollars on gacha since then even though later gacha games are much better at extracting money from their players.

I was exposed to a weaker version of the attack, which allowed me to develop memetic antibodies and become immunized against the entire strain. I was vaccinated.

I worry about the people a couple decades younger than me, or even the ones of my generation who just waited longer to get into games. People whose first gacha game was Genshin Impact, whose first multiplayer shooter was Fortnite, whose first user-generated content game was Roblox. They’re getting exposed right away to highly-evolved attack methods, incredibly more virulent and pernicious than my early experiences, often with no protection at all.

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All Hail No Fail

I’m increasingly coming to the conclusion that I want to completely turn off failure in games.

(To make this explicit right at the beginning: I am talking about my own experiences. Other people have different experiences, desires, priorities, and so on. This is normal and good.)

Consider Rock Band: missing individual notes is technically failure of a sort, but you can keep playing unless you miss too many and fail the song. At that point, you’ve triggered a binary failure mode which is recognized and punished: to keep going, you now have to restart the song completely. However, you can avoid this by turning on “No Fail” mode. With that mode active, you can still miss individual notes but you can’t fail a song and will never get kicked out of one.

That’s the kind of “turn off failure” I’m talking about: not a “win” button, but opting out of punished binary failure modes.

I’ve said before that every game should have a No Fail mode, and now I’m at the point where think I would turn it on in just about every game if I could.

Here’s why.

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Toonstruck, Telltale, and Ken Williams

Recently I was chatting with friends about this article: Toonstruck (or, A Case Study in the Death of Adventure Games)

It’s an interesting retrospective, especially for people like my friends and me who grew up on Sierra and LucasArts adventure games but lacked the perspective to understand the genre’s decline in the mid-to-late 90’s. It pins at least part of the downfall on an adherence to a vision of games as interactive cinema, as championed by Sierra’s Ken Williams. Toonstruck in particular was an overoptimistic overinvestment in this vision that went way past deadline and over budget (though this write-up also makes it sound pretty fun and makes me want to finally get it off my backlog and play it).

In our conversation, my friend asked me, “With some distance, what do you think about Telltale’s attempt at a revival?” I turned out to have a lot to say about this.

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The Quest for Dragon Quest

Every once in a while, I like to pretend I’m going to catch up on Dragon Quest.

I played a lot of DQ 3 on the NES when I was a kid, but never really got into the other mainline games. Builders 1+2 made me wish I had a better grasp of their stories/worlds, and Heroes II made me want to better know their characters (especially from DQ 4).

These are widely-beloved culturally-significant games, and as such they’ve received a number of ports over the years. But when I look at the options for playing these games today, I’m flummoxed. I know I should no longer be surprised by basically any decision made by Square Enix, but their treatment of their notable back catalog really comes across like they hate money.

The first six mainline DQ titles all have relatively definitive ports… on mobile. (One can quibble over the graphics, but my understanding is that it’s not nearly as bad as the ports of classic Final Fantasy or Chrono Trigger, and unlike with those games, the DQ ports are otherwise generally considered the best versions of the games due to fixes and quality-of-life improvements.) None of these are available on PC. The only mainline DQ game on Steam is DQ XI. And for consoles - the first three of the ports were also ported to Nintendo Switch… but only those three.

I don’t understand this. Is the paying audience for classic JRPGs really bigger on mobile than PC or console? I find that hard to believe (especially because, like with all Square Enix games, they are quite highly priced for the mobile stores.) I know I don’t want to play a classic JRPG on a touchscreen, and I expect people who want to play old games to care more about preservation and prefer platforms that aren’t actively hostile to it.

And as the developer/publisher, once you’ve paid the overhead cost of getting the engine and translation in place and released the older, less-well-regarded games (3 is well-liked, but 1 and 2 are generally not as recommended as 4, 5, and 6), why not release the later games too?

Dragon Quest isn’t even the only series that Square Enix has treated this way. The first Star Ocean has a nice port on Switch and PS4… that is not available on PC. (At least this one isn’t mobile-only, I guess.) And the second Star Ocean, which uses the same engine and is already translated, has not received such a port and isn’t on any modern platform (at least in the US). Steam only has the fourth mainline Star Ocean game at this time (though thankfully the upcoming sixth game is supposed to come to it too).

I was so sure once the DQ 1-3 ports and SO 1 port came to Switch, they’d be followed by the next games and also make it to Steam, but it’s been quite a while now without so much as a whisper of that. Instead we’re getting… a new remake of DQ 3. What?

I don’t know what to do with all of this. I guess if I want to play DQ 1-3 my best bet is Switch. But 4 and 5 are the ones I’m most curious about and I don’t seem to have great (legal) options there, despite it really seeming like it wouldn’t be hard for Square Enix to provide them.

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Kirby and the Curved Difficulty

I’ve been thinking lately about difficulty curves.

Not all games are about creating flow. Games are about creating all kinds of experiences. But for the ones that are about flow, a gradually-increasing difficulty curve is a natural approach. As the player gains more practice and experience with the game’s mechanics, they will find its challenges to be easier. The game must therefore become objectively harder in order to provide the same subjective level of difficulty and keep the player engaged.

This is well-known and sounds simple, but is actually quite complicated and full of traps–some of which are also well-known. The same level of challenge will vary in difficulty to different players, which can be mitigated with easy modes and the ability to skip challenges. Players may put a game down unfinished for any number of reasons and then come back with their skills rusty and find the game isn’t re-approachable due to the elevated difficulty of mid- or late-game challenges, which can be mitigated via always-accessible tutorial/training/practice modes or level selects.

(Note that things get even thornier when you talk about difficulty across installments in a series or genre, given that you want to challenge veterans but still be approachable for newbies. But that’s not what I want to talk about today.)

One of the more insidious traps comes from the fact that there are a lot of elements of difficulty, and thus a lot of ways to make a game harder–and different players will react differently to these different ways, even if the overall level of difficulty increase appears similar.

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Paying for games twice

Like many people my age, I grew up with more time than money and access to relatively few video games, and found the situation reversed when I became a working adult. My scarcity-mindset habits combined with the glut of sales, bundles, and downright free games has resulted in my having a substantial backlog–even after canceling my PlayStation Plus subscription, I own something like six hundred games (depending exactly how you count them) that I have never played. (And over a hundred of those are ones I’ve flagged as ones I really should get around to at some point.)

I stemmed the tide somewhat by telling myself that I’m only allowed to buy a game if I’m confident I’ll play it that week - and then tightened the restriction to that day. But it was hard to hold myself to this. Great games kept going on serious sales! And though I tried not to, I still kept buying games that realistically I was probably never going to play.

But recently I was introduced to an idea that has finally put a stop to this behavior. I’ve now gotten through multiple sales without opening my wallet once, when I know I would previously have caved and bought something. The idea that did it for me was from this article: Everything Must Be Paid for Twice.

The article points out that in most cases, when you buy something you don’t get value out of it right away. You’ve paid the first cost–the monetary one–but the second cost is the effort and time to actually use the thing. Buying a book doesn’t add value until you read it. Buying workout equipment doesn’t add value until you exercise with it. Even buying a decoration doesn’t add value until you hang it up or otherwise display it. Until you pay the second cost, the first cost is sunk - not much better than throwing the money away.

I knew this, but what the article points out next is the piece I was missing: the second cost is usually much higher than the first.

If you’re in a position to buy things you don’t use, it’s probably because your time is, in some sense, worth way more than the amounts of money you’re throwing around. This is especially true if the amount of money you’re throwing around is, say, just a few bucks to get a discounted game that would require eighty hours to play!

Keeping that relationship in mind has gotten me to the point where I can finally ignore game sales. Before, I always used to think, “Oh, but what if I want to play this game later, when it’s back to full price?” Now I recognize that the difference between paying half price for a game and paying full price for it is significantly less than the cost of allocating the time to play that game. It’s a trivial part of the calculation and it should be treated as such. The “savings” from buying a game on sale that I wasn’t otherwise already about to buy aren’t worth it.

Obviously the threshold will be in different places for different people, but for me (especially now that I’m gaming much less than I used to), it’s clearly correct to just delete all those notifications about my wishlisted games going on sale. I’m a little embarrassed how much of a relief it is to just… not worry about that anymore.

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Inscryption and Privacy

I feel like I say this about everything, but to me the most interesting thing about Inscryption is something I haven’t seen anyone else talk about. In this case, it’s the story’s subtle commentary on how games have contributed to the casual erosion of privacy.

I can’t even be sure it’s intentional. The game doesn’t call much attention to it and I’m pretty sure I care about this topic more than most so I could easily be reading too much into it. But there’s still something interesting here whether it was put there consciously or not.

The details I want to discuss come from pretty late in the game, so here’s your spoiler warning. I’m about to go into late-game narrative and mechanical spoilers for Inscryption.

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