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Five Bucks a Month

Let’s review. What does five bucks a month get you in mobile gaming?

On Apple platforms, five bucks a month gets you Apple Arcade, which is a curated library of games still rolling out but supposed to total over a hundred this fall - and several of the games out so far are well-reviewed. There are no ads, no in-app purchases, and no behavior tracking. Games can be downloaded and played offline, though you can also share your progress between devices via iCloud. Games can be shared between up to six family members and can be played with popular game controllers.

On Android platforms, five bucks a month gets you Google Play Pass, which is a curated library of over 350 games and utility apps that are already out (and apparently more to come each month). Many of these games and apps are quite well-regarded. They also have no ads or in-app purchases and can be shared with up to five other family members.

And in Mario Kart Tour, five bucks a month gets you the Gold Pass, which gives you some in-game items and features in a single game that still also requires a persistent internet connection for its always-on DRM and which still also has a microtransaction-backed gacha-based unlock system.

I think it would have been obvious the Gold Pass was a bad deal anyway, but the timing of the announcements here casts it into really sharp relief. It’s so disappointing to see Nintendo fall to such sleazy depths, and I really hope it stays contained to mobile. I’ve still got Mario Kart 8 on my Switch and I’ll be playing that instead.

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Capsule Review: Rumu

A short narrative adventure game where you play as a robotic vacuum cleaner named Rumu who is designed to clean messes and feel love. It soon becomes clear that things are not as they appear and there are mysteries to solve - possibly deadly ones. The game features a sleek, ultramodern aesthetic with visuals that wouldn’t be out of place in some kind of near-future interactive IKEA catalog or a commercial for Aperture Science.

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City of Friends

Given how important the social aspect is to MMORPGs, I’m always confused by design choices that get in the way of making friends and playing together. I wrote about how City of Heroes let teammates target through the tank, which makes teamwork smoother than in later games like World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV. This is just one of several such mechanics present in CoH that I’ve been shocked to find missing from later MMORPGs.

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Target Through the Tank

In MMORPGs that use the “holy trinity” of tank/DPS/heals, it’s generally really important that other party members target the enemy the tank is currently targeting. Both because it’s beneficial to burn down individual enemies quickly to remove them as threats and also because attacking enemies that aren’t the tank’s focus risks pulling them off the tank, which can easily lead to party wipes in tough battles.

There are often in-game aides to make this easier. In Final Fantasy XIV (and as I recall, World of Warcraft, and probably most similar MMOs) the party leader can ‘mark’ enemies with icons visible to other party members to indicate a planned targeting order. And it’s generally possible to see what your current target is targeting, so you can always click your tank in the party roster to target them, and then click to their target to target that.

But the marks won’t help if the plan goes to hell, and having to constantly target back to the tank to see what they’re targeting adds a lot of finicky steps and opportunity for error - what if they switch targets immediately after you switch to their target? It’s really easy for a situation that goes wrong to quickly go more wrong as DPSers accidentally pull aggro off the tank and the healer can’t keep up. These tools are not enough - and in fact, some quick internet searching on the topic turns up discussions for several MMOs including both FFXIV and WoW on how to set up macros or add-ons to make it easier to consistently target what the tank is targeting. It’s clear that this is a persistent need in basically every MMO of this kind that has yet to be solved in-game.

…except that it was fully, simply, and intuitively solved before any of these games came out.

City of Heroes came out in April 2004, several months before WoW and several years before FFXIV. And in CoH, if you use an attack ability while targeting a party member, instead of failing with an “invalid target” message, the attack will trigger against the party member’s target. All you have to do to keep targeting the enemy the tank is targeting, no matter how often they switch, is to just keep the tank as your target. That’s it.

I don’t know if City of Heroes was the first to do this, but it definitely should not have been the last. I don’t know why every MMO since hasn’t stolen this.

I suppose one could argue that doing so would “dumb down” the game, as target management is an actual skill and part of the challenge of tough encounters. To which I’d respond that what’s hard about a game should also be what’s interesting about it. The interesting part of target management is primarily a tactical challenge, not an action one, and is mostly the tank’s responsibility. Once the tank has decided which enemy should be the group’s current target, it is not an interesting challenge to have the other party members scramble through several clicks to change over to that target. Furthermore, it’s not something players can practice on their own in a safe space - it only really comes up in high-pressure group situations, where one person messing up can create a frustrating experience for several players. Given how heavily these games tend to incentivize teaming up, even with strangers, it’s incoherent design to then not smooth over these kinds of coordination problems as much as possible.

Letting players target through the tank, as CoH did, keeps the actual tactics of combat just as interesting but streamlines away a fiddly source of uninteresting challenge in a way that makes it less frustrating to play with strangers. It’s an obvious win. Every MMORPG should do this.

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Capsule Review: Sticks and Bones

A short dialog-free comedic adventure that’s apparently intended to serve as a prequel to a fuller game later on. You play as a skeletal pirate seeking a great treasure who must deal with various setbacks, obstacles, and enemies along the way. Over the game’s short run time (my playthrough was about forty minutes) it flirts briefly with many different minigame-like interaction methods.

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I’d Buy That for a Dollar

One of the most interesting major challenges in the games industry right now - especially for indies - is discoverability. With a constant deluge of new releases, there’s a serious signal-to-noise problem. How do we connect games people want to play with the people who want to play them? How do we help players who can’t find games that appeal to them, even though those games are in fact out there? How do we stop games from languishing in obscurity when they’d be bought and enjoyed by many, if the many only knew about the game in the first place?

As much as I enjoy the opportunity to pick up games I’m curious about for a buck or less, it’s a clear sign of how broken the discoverability is on the Nintendo Switch eShop that the best way to get people to notice your game is to heavily discount it. I’d rather be able to find games I’ll love and spend more on them, to truly support their creators and cast an economic vote for More Like This.

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Capsule Review: SUPERBEAT: XONiC

A rhythm game where notes flow from the center of the screen to the left or right sides of an outer circle. Depending on the note type and the portion of the circle it hits, the player must press the correct button or stick (or on some platforms, tap the screen) in the correct way with the correct timing.

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The trick is, when you're hooked on a game, you...

The trick is, when you’re hooked on a game, you need to harness that for good. For example, I bought a mini-elliptical to exercise at my desk. It sat in its box for a few days, and then I told myself I couldn’t play Final Fantasy XIV unless I was on the elliptical. No grinding in the game unless I was grinding in real life.

Less than an hour after that, I had the elliptical fully assembled and was stepping on it while questing through Eorzea.

My daily step count has been much higher since then.