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Pretending to Rock: Fake, Artificial, and Valuable Achievement

A while back, I discussed my experiences with the dangers of fake achievement and its potential for abuse. I’d become addicted, and regularly played RPGs to feel good about myself - I allowed myself to glow in the praise directed at my characters for their world-saving heroics, when all I’d really done is hit the right buttons enough times. Once I figured this out, and realized it was preventing me from accomplishing anything real, I set about the lengthy task of recovery. Step one was a game accomplishment that required skill rather than patience - collecting all the emblems in Sonic Adventure DX.

The response to this essay was… mixed, to say the least.

There was one comment in particular that raised an interesting question, which I would like to address today.

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Status and Signals: Why Hardcore Gamers Are Afraid Of Easy Mode

Firefly cast

I’ve met a lot of Firefly fans. I’m one myself. Apart from enjoying the show, we all have one thing in common: we want there to be more Firefly fans. We want to share the show with others. We want more people to have the experience, to know how great it is, to laugh at the jokes and fall in love with the characters. We want more people to talk with about the show, who will know what we’re talking about and share our enthusiasm. We want more people to buy the DVDs, to cast an economic vote of “more like this!” so that maybe Joss’s next show won’t get screwed over.

It’s an inclusive fandom. We want there to be more of us. More Browncoats is better.

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Future's Past: Ratchet & Clank and the Problem of Sequels

Ratchet as seen in each of the first five Ratchet & Clank games

Insomniac’s Ratchet and Clank have come a long way. Seven years after their first outing in late 2002, Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack In Time marks the ninth installment of a franchise spanning three platforms. (Tenth and four if you count the oft-forgotten Ratchet & Clank: Going Mobile.) They’ve even got action figures now.

A Crack In Time is easily the best Ratchet & Clank game on the PS3, and will be many fans’ favorite of the whole series. It certainly does have several series bests: the best writing, the best humor, the best Clank gameplay, the return of the series’s best villain, and the single most fascinating and complex character ever to grace a Ratchet & Clank game.

But to understand A Crack In Time’s greatest triumph, what it accomplishes that none of its predecessors do, we have to look back through the evolutionary paths traced by the series.

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Why Your Demo Sucks: Design Errors and Cognitive Dissonance

Like the pre-order metagame and the trophy/achievement metagame, demos are part of the less-evolved fringes of game design. Which is odd considering how long we’ve had demos in one form or another. Shareware has been around since at least the eighties. But not every developer made use of it, and only now with the latest console generation has heightened internet access resulted in widespread freely-available demos for consoles. We are still figuring out how to design games, but we are even more in the dark about how to design demos.

In fact, it’s not even entirely clear that we should design demos. Research on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 games suggests developers are better off not making demos at all, and should just make trailers instead. It’s not clear, however - there are many confounding variables here.

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Mirror's Edge: What Went Wrong and Why

Mirror’s Edge is a Bad Good Game. The foundation is solid: players take the role of Faith, a genuinely badass woman with a non-exploitative, unconventionally beautiful design whose motivations revolve around survival and protecting her sister. Faith parkours her way around an unnamed city of bright colors and austere beauty, and is trained in a variety of disarm techniques should she encounter armed attackers she can’t simply outrun. Sounds good, right?

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Crash Course: Top Five Games to Increase Your Gamer Literacy

Are you on the fringes of gaming? Do you want to get in deeper, but find yourself unsure where to start? Do conversations with experienced gamers leave you feeling lost? Is “sorry, but our princess is in another castle” your freshest gaming joke? When it comes to gamer culture, are you on the outside looking in?

Dogs on the outside looking in.

Have no fear: Doctor Professor is here!

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Buy Before You Try: The Problem With Pre-Orders

Pre-ordering a video game is, on the face of it, a pretty dumb thing to do most of the time. You’re agreeing, before you can possibly know if the game is any good, to buy it for the most it will ever cost - and most video games depreciate pretty quickly. Before pre-order bonuses, the only real tack game-sellers could take to try to convince you to do this was to point out that it would guarantee you’d get a copy on launch day, even if the game sold out completely - but that almost never actually happens.

For the other parties in the transaction, however, it’s a great deal. It ensures a certain minimum number of sales, and allows demand to be gauged and thus indicates how large production runs should be. And if there are enough pre-orders, this fact can be used in the game’s marketing and drive sales up even higher. So it’s not too surprising that incentives would start appearing to make pre-ordering more appealing for consumers.

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I'm Not Evil, I Just Play That Way: Player Motivations and Character Goals

Recently we took a look at the technique of option restriction, which is when a game presents the player with only one path forward, thus eliminating choice while maintaining agency. If it’s handled well, it allows for close management of narrative progression while still letting the player feel that they are in control. So what is it that determines whether it’s handled well? What allows the player’s sense of control to be maintained even with a lack of choice?

“Players like to feel in control, but this sensation doesn’t necessarily come from having the ability to choose. Having control is as simple as doing what you want to do. It’s possible for players to feel in control even if they don’t actually have the ability to choose, as long as the what the game asks and what the player wants aligns. A good narrative should foster this.”
—Andrew Vanden Bossche, Would You Kindly? BioShock And Free Will

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I Told Him to Do That: Option Restriction, Choice, and Agency in Bioshock

Have you ever trapped a spider under a glass? Maybe you saw one on your kitchen floor and decided to humanely release it outdoors. So you took a drinking glass and put it down over the spider. Then perhaps you took a sheet of paper and laid it on the floor. As the spider scurried about in its prison, you gradually slid the glass onto the paper, which you could now pick up and take outside.

By doing this, you managed to move the spider where you wanted it to go - all without touching it or influencing it directly. As the spider aimlessly explored its limited circle of freedom, you advanced the walls, closing off space behind it and opening up space in front of it, in the direction you had selected. By choosing to move at all, the spider chose to move onto the paper - to the goal that you had chosen, and of which the spider was not even aware.

This is exactly how many video games work.

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Awesome By Proxy: Addicted to Fake Achievement

When I was old enough to care whether I won or lost at games, but still too young to be any good at them, I decided RPGs were better than action games. After all, I could play Contra for hours and still be terrible at it - while if I played Dragon Warrior III for the same amount of time, my characters would gain levels and be much more capable of standing up to whatever threats they encountered. To progress in an action game, the player has to improve, which is by no means guaranteed - but to progress in an RPG, the characters have to improve, which is inevitable.

As I grew older, this conclusion lay dormant and unexamined in my mind. RPGs continued to be my favorite genre. I relished the opportunity to watch interesting, lovable characters develop and interact in epic storylines. (Comparatively interesting and lovable, anyway - say what you will about Cecil, but his quest for redemption revealed a lot more depth than Mega Man’s quest to shoot up some robots.) And I loved feeling like a hero. I saved the world in Final Fantasy IV, again in Lufia II, then again in Chrono Trigger.