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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 reapproachable 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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On whether games “should” have easy modes

I’m always frustrated when I see the difficulty debate framed as “Should every game have an easy mode?” To me, this question makes about as much sense as “Should every building have an accessibility ramp?”

Every house I’ve ever lived in has had at least one step up to the front door, sometimes a few. None of them have had ramps. And that’s fine - the people who went into and out of those houses frequently would not have benefited from a ramp, and the cases where someone did need assistance with the steps were so few and far between that it was just easier and cheaper to deal with them individually. Other houses that are, say, occupied by people who use wheelchairs have a different trade-off. So it makes sense to let each such household decide whether to install a ramp based on who is using the house rather than mandating it. The households for whom it’s a net benefit will do so without being forced, and the households for whom it isn’t would lose value if they were forced to spend money, space, and time on something that doesn’t help them out.

But there are also buildings intended to be used by much broader and more diverse groups of people: apartment buildings, hospitals, town halls, libraries, museums, department stores, and plenty more. These buildings aren’t specifically meant for people who need ramps - but they are meant for a group of people that includes them. It would be bad business for them and bad practice for society if these buildings did not have accessibility ramps.

This is similar to how I feel about things like easy modes (and of course accessibility features and other things that feed into audience size). When I play a niche indie game made by a tiny low-budget team, I might find it personally disappointing if it doesn’t have an easy mode, and that might be enough to mean that the game isn’t for me. But that’s okay. It doesn’t mean the studio made a mistake. It means they are using their limited resources to target a specific audience as best they can, and I just don’t happen to be a part of it.

But when there’s a game that’s aiming for mass appeal (especially AAA games, but really any game with nontrivial marketing) that doesn’t have an easy mode - I again might be personally disappointed and conclude I’m not in the audience for it, but it also starts to seem more like an actual mistake on the part of the studio. Easy modes are one of the cheapest ways you can substantially broaden a game’s potential audience.

“Should every game have an easy mode?” is an impossible question to answer sensibly unless you can unpack that “should” and that “every”. I think the world would be a worse place if we had, say, an actual law that all games must have easy modes. But some games “should” have easy modes in that choosing to add them would be a win for both the game studio and the people who’d like to play the game. There “should” be easy modes in that you’d expect to see most games that want to sell well to have one. Asking whether “every” game “should” have an easy mode is a false dichotomy that just prompts people to yell at each other because some have examples of games that are better off with easy modes and some have examples of games that are better off without them.

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