Posts by Tag / GAME: Space Pioneer (3)

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Fake MMOs and Fake Loot Boxes

I like Space Pioneer, but it does one thing that bugs me a lot. To properly explain it, I first need to talk about a PS2 JRPG from 2003 because that’s how I roll.

The first game in the .hack multimedia franchise is called .hack//Infection. It’s a sci-fi JRPG taking place in an alternate near-future - but it focuses on a fictional fantasy MMORPG in the vein of Phantasy Star Online that your character spends most of their time playing. So in practice, the actual gameplay is a JRPG pretending to be a MMORPG.

In 2003, I was way into JRPGs and curious about MMOs, but was quickly repelled by .hack//Infection’s approach. The way I remember it, in the game’s first hour or two you find yourself in a blocky, procedural-looking dungeon teaming up with another “player” to kill some monsters. You add each other as friends and later you sign on for another session and your friend isn’t online so you have to solo for a while.

Now, this was some sixteen years ago so I might have some details wrong and I was definitely dumber about game design back then, but this setup struck me as obviously wrong-headed. The (probably unfair) vibe I got was that the game was made to cash in on the rising popularity of MMORPGs by imitating one in a cheaper-to-make single-player RPG, without recognizing that the things that are easy to copy about MMORPGs aren’t the good things about them - they’re the unfortunate consequences and limitations required by the good things which you can’t copy without actually being a MMORPG.

MMORPGs are appealing because you can work together with real people to progress. That’s the good part. You can’t copy that in a standard JRPG. A consequence of your allies being real people is that they aren’t always playing at the same time you are (or in a position to play the same content). And blocky, procedural dungeons are a consequence of the need to provide gobs of content for players to chew through together over time and keep their subscriptions up. In a single-player single-purchase game with a story and ending, incorporating these negative consequences is just making the game worse without providing the positives that outweigh those problems in an MMO.

To be fair, I don’t actually know whether .hack//Infection does something worthwhile that justifies these choices; I dropped the game pretty quickly. But in those first couple of hours, it felt like the game was trying to make me feel like I was playing a MMORPG through superficial imitation that could only ever copy the downsides and I couldn’t understand why anyone would make a game like that.

Okay, so, that brings us to Space Pioneer.

Space Pioneer’s progression is all about upgrades. Virtually everything about your character and their arsenal can be upgraded. You pay for these upgrades using coins earned by defeating enemies and completing objectives, but to be allowed to purchase an upgrade, you need to have enough cards for that upgrade. And upgrade cards are rewarded in what can only be called loot boxes.

There’s no way to buy them with real-world money. (Definitely not in the microtransaction-free Switch version of the game, but from what I can see they don’t look purchasable in the freemium mobile version either.) But completing certain in-game objectives awards you with random bunches of upgrade cards that differ by rarity and are presented with a box-opening animation. It seems very clearly intended to be evocative of loot boxes - and why would you do that?

Nobody actually likes loot boxes. They are a consequence of a particular type of monetization, and while often profitable their consequences for a game’s experience are usually negative. The reason to include them is to make money, not because people actually like them - so why add them if you aren’t going to use them to get money?

And indeed, I’d absolutely argue their impact in Space Pioneer is negative. The first few I received were a little exciting, but when I realized that I wasn’t actually earning upgrades but rather the opportunity to buy upgrades and that I was much more constrained by coins than cards and always had plenty of available upgrades I couldn’t afford, I stopped paying any attention to what cards I received and it no longer felt like a reward. In fact, the only real impact it ever had was when I got unlucky and stopped getting cards for the frag grenade and then got a mission objective to use a higher level of frag grenade than I had access to. I couldn’t complete this objective until I finally randomly got more frag grenade upgrade cards.

In other words, rather than being a reward system, the upgrade cards were only a wall to progression that randomly blocked off upgrades and objectives - in a game where the progression is all about upgrades and objectives and where you can’t even spend money to get past the wall.

I don’t know what the designers of .hack//Infection or Space Pioneer had in mind, but to me these both seem like cargo cult design, incorporating popular elements without an understanding of why they’re popular or what impact they will have when superficially imitated. Only the costs are incurred with none of the benefits. They’re just the game getting in its own way.

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Capsule Review: Space Pioneer

A level-based isometric twin-stick shooter. Each level is an alien planet on which you must defeat alien attackers while completing a series of objectives that are mostly variations on defending an area for a set amount of time. These objectives generally last a couple of minutes in total; each mission also has two optional objectives for extra rewards.

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Heckdivers

I love finding clusters of games that are built around similar concepts but which differ in important ways. I’ve previously argued that good games are beacons in design space, pointing us to an area likely to have many other good potential games nearby - it’s fun to see it prove out.

Helldivers, for example, is a top-down co-op shooter starring space marines killing aliens and completing tasks on hostile worlds. It’s clearly a good game, but I’m not quite in the audience for it. The tone of Starship Troopers-like dystopian satire casting the players as obvious bad guys if you pay attention to the mission descriptions isn’t an appealing fantasy to me, and I dislike the way the game basically must be played online with strangers, especially when its mechanics (friendly fire, easy-to-alert enemy patrols, etc.) require coordination and cooperation between the players. I played it a bit with Senpai-chan, and when we screwed up near at the end of a mission in a way that delayed our escape shuttle, our online teammate team-killed us in order to safely escape themselves - and as far as I can tell, this was mechanically the correct choice to make. I’m not attacking this design - but I want to be clear it is not for me.

But there’s so much else about Helldivers’s theming and structure that is for me. I like twin-stick shooters! I like co-op! I like sci-fi! I like mission-based structure! If Helldivers let me pop the hood and tweak things, then - like Razbuten with Halo 2 - I’m sure Senpai-chan and I could have found a version of the game we both loved.

That’s not an option, so I’m glad there are other games exploring nearby regions of design space. There’s Battle Planet - Judgement Day, which casts the players as escaped criminals and has a more roguelike structure but otherwise hits a lot of the same beats - twin-stick co-op shooter about killing aliens and completing tasks on hostile worlds. I tried it, it was also clearly solid, but still not for me (I don’t find playing as a murderous criminal more appealing than playing as a fascist soldier, and roguelikes are the wrong kind of repetitive for me).

But now we’ve also got Space Pioneer - another top-down co-op shooter starring space marines killing aliens and completing tasks on hostile worlds. And this one finally tries a version of the formula that resonates with me. You don’t play as a bad guy. You don’t need to go online. Your progress is never lost. Gameplay varies at a good rate, with objectives that encourage you to change up your play style, weapon, and gear on a regular basis. It’s Helldivers with much more chill and that’s was I was looking for. I’ve barely put the game down since starting it.

Some might call Space Pioneer a Helldivers clone, but I wouldn’t. I like when games take inspiration from each other but don’t stop there, and bring their elements to new audiences.