Posts by Tag / Thought (299)

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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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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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Wordle

I’ve written a few times about the idea that good games are beacons in design space pointing us to an area likely to have many other good potential games nearby and how much I like seeing the exploration and experimentation this creates. My new favorite example is Wordle.

There’s a lot to be said about Wordle (and a lot that has been said), but in this context the really cool thing about it is how simple it is, and the democratizing effect this has on experimenting with it.

Like, sure, once it got popular we saw a proliferation of rip-offs trying to profit from someone else’s design work, which sucks and which we always see when a game gets popular (especially in the mobile space but that’s a separate rant). But because Wordle is so simple, it’s very easy for individuals with some coding skill and zero budget to get involved out of interest and passion. Pretty soon there were solvers and reimplementations as people used Wordle to inspire their own projects. Next the exploration came, starting with jokes like “what if Wordle, but it hates you” or “what if Wordle, but it’s horny” or “what if Wordle, but for prime numbers” or “what if Wordle, but for single letters”. These vary in how actually-playable they are, but I think all of them make the world a better, more interesting, more amusing place.

But what really got my attention was seeing a version that was “what if Wordle, but twice”. This is a genuine evolution of the concept applying the existing mechanics in a new way resulting in a similar but distinct gaming experience that’s equally valid but which appeals to a slightly different audience. That’s awesome and I hope to see more evolution like this.

And the coolest part is how fast this is happening. Like, what happens when a AAA game becomes very popular? A year later, other AAA publishers put out one or two games that superficially copy some of its more prominent design elements. What happens when a tiny, simple, indie game like Wordle becomes very popular? An immediate explosion of innovation. Within weeks individuals are putting out dozens of variations with their own spin. The really promising ones get more attention and the cycle repeats in a positive feedback loop of creative energy.

You love to see it.

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My Top Ten Games of 2021

Based on how much joy they brought me, not on objective greatness.

  1. DC Super Hero Girls: Teen Power
  2. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart (this would probably have the number one slot if I had savored it instead of powering through it in a weekend)
  3. Star Trek: Legends
  4. Five Dates (not the sort of thing I enjoy solo but was a good time to play with Allie)
  5. Wide Ocean Big Jacket
  6. What Remains of Edith Finch (this would probably had been higher if I hadn’t gotten most of the payload already from Joseph Anderson’s plot analysis)
  7. Alto’s Adventure
  8. Galaxy Champions TV
  9. Death Come True
  10. Arietta of Spirits

This is based on much less play time this year but still seemed worth posting. A tradition is a tradition.

Also, honorable mentions to games I enjoyed but which are ports or re-releases of games I already played in previous years:

  1. SteamWorld Dig 2
  2. Star Trek: Voyager - Elite Force
  3. Disney Magical World 2: Enchanted Edition
  4. Torchlight II
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Nintendo Switch Year in Review

So, Nintendo has sent out these emails about your “Nintendo Switch year in review”. For the past couple of years, the Switch has been my main place to game, so while this isn’t a complete look at my play history (plus it doesn’t have the final week of 2021 because that hasn’t happened yet) it’s the majority of it. And it casts into pretty sharp relief how much my gaming has dropped off this year.

On Switch in 2020, I played 84 games for a total of 637 hours.

In 2021, I played 46 games for 257 hours.

My most-played game in 2020 was Animal Crossing: New Horizons with a total of 270 hours. That’s more than I played all Switch games this year. But the difference isn’t just because it’s Animal Crossing - subtract those hours and 2020 still has 110 more hours than my overall total for 2021.

In 2021, Animal Crossing: New Horizons was still my second most-played Switch game, but with only 22 hours (most of which were right after the big final update). Third place was Hatsune Miku Logic Paint S with 21 hours - almost as many as Animal Crossing. Even my most-played game didn’t break triple digits - it was DC Super Hero Girls: Teen Power with 54 hours.

(Y’all are sleeping on DC Super Hero Girls: Teen Power, by the way. It was surreal seeing how little coverage this game got in any channels I see and it was a good reminder that gaming culture is not a monolith.)

I’ve mostly accepted and embraced that I game less these days, so I’ve started to cancel the various subscription services I have in that domain. I dropped PlayStation Plus months ago and now I’ve dropped Gamefly (which I’d had continuously for thirteen and a half years). Apple Arcade will probably be next to go and Nintendo Switch Online may not be far behind.

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Follow My Instructions

I swear this post is about video games.

So, the above video by one of my favorite ASMRtists is intended to reduce anxiety. It does so by presenting a series of cognitive tasks - none of them are especially difficult, but they all require constant attention. The idea is to distract the mind so that it doesn’t have enough bandwidth left over to worry or catastrophize. Do this for several minutes and runaway anxiety loops should collapse and the mind should return to something like a base state where recent memories are instead about succeeding at several basic tasks. (In theory. This video is not made by a licensed mental health professional.)

I don’t know for sure that things actually work this way, or for what segment of the population it might be effective. But I do know that this formula sounds really familiar to me, and in fact is one of the main ways I’ve used video games over the years.

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#neurodivergencies #L-theanine #Cozy Games #anxiety #asmr video

Tags: Thought, Video

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Framing device plot tumors

So there’s a pattern in fiction that I haven’t seen discussed or found a name for. It is, in short, when a framing device becomes a plot tumor.

There’s a specific kind of framing device I have in mind - more than the simple in medias res of, say, a tale told in flashback, this is when the frame story has an unusual premise which exists to enable and string together certain kinds of inner stories. For example, the Assassin’s Creed games (at least the first several - I fell off the franchise after Ezio and maybe this has changed since then) are technically near-future sci-fi where technology enables people to relive their ancestors' memories and secret societies use this to hunt down powerful artifacts from a precursor civilization. This allows each individual game to focus mainly on adventures taking place centuries in the past, connected by the common thread of the present-day hidden power struggle over the artifacts.

I think there’s a conflict with this sort of setup that is really hard to escape. There’s a very real sense in which the frame story only exists for the benefit of the inner stories - yet the stakes of the frame story are almost always going to be higher and more unusual than those of the inner stories. For the storyteller (and for some portion of the audience) this can cause the frame story to be more intriguing, which can easily create a trend where early installments have just enough frame story to carry the inner story and later installments spend more and more time and focus on the frame story.

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Harmonix in Fortnite and Purple Arcade

Two things happened yesterday that messed me up a bit more than they should…

First - Epic Games bought Harmonix “to develop musical journeys and gameplay for Fortnite".

There was a time when I would have named Harmonix as my favorite game studio. It’s been over a decade since I felt that way and I’ve been baffled by some of their decisions in the interim, but I still can only think of them as one of the purest examples of an indie developer with a clear vision and passion. There’s the old chestnut about how some studios make games to make money, while others make money to make games - Harmonix has always felt like the latter. They have a consistent history of developing innovative games and franchises that find new ways to empower players to create music - they’re the ones who invented the plastic instrument rhythm genre, before Activision came along and ran it into the ground. They don’t belong in the same universe as something as nakedly commercial as Fortnite.

So as inevitable and unsurprising as developments like this may be, there’s still something deeply disturbing about seeing Harmonix get swallowed by Fortnite. It’s like watching Cthulhu eat Big Bird.

Second - Welcome to Purple Arcade!

So, there’s this YouTube channel that used to be called “Game Design Wit”. From 2014 to 2016, this guy put out a couple dozen video essays about game design. They were great! I consume so much game commentary and analysis that it’s rare for me to find someone who consistently shows me new insights, but this guy did. I linked to his channel on my blogroll, suggesting starting with the video Why PS1 and N64 Games Were Different. (Guess I’m gonna have to update that listing.)

After 2016, he stopped with the video essays. I don’t know exactly why, but I assume it’s the same reason most small YouTube channels stop doing that kind of thing: too much work for not enough reward. He later put out some lower-effort videos - a handful of book reviews, a rambling discussion of why people like Dark Souls, and some Let’s Plays - things that didn’t require script-writing or video-editing. I didn’t like any of these, but I’m certainly in no position to throw stones when it comes to an internet person dramatically lowering the effort level of their game analysis output. I missed the essays but I couldn’t begrudge the decision not to invest in them.

Yesterday, a new video was put out on his channel, which had been renamed “Purple Arcade”. The video advertises the eponymous company’s services of developing advergames. At first I thought his account might have been hacked, but it’s clearly him in the video, so then I thought maybe it was a joke, but it seems to be 100% serious.

And, like, I can’t be mad about the guy trying to make a living in the area of his expertise and passion. I’m a little frustrated he turned his existing YouTube channel (with over 10k subscribers) into one for his new company - I get why people do that kind of thing but it still feels rude to me. He could have left the old channel as-is and still posted the video and linked to a new channel. Somewhat alarmingly, he also apparently removed or de-listed all the Let’s Play videos, though thankfully the video essays are still available (and collected in this playlist, though it also includes the low-effort Dark Souls ramble at the end which I suggest skipping). I’m assuming this is because he currently considers them beneficial to his brand, as they show he’s a game design expert - but if he ever decides they are insufficiently polished and are a detriment, presumably they’ll vanish too.

The impact of this one small YouTube channel is obviously much less than the impact of Harmonix and Fortnite, but this change feels much more personal in scope and hits much closer to home. It makes me think of what I recently wrote about cottage industries and the dying middle ground between hobby and profession. I never co-opted Pixel Poppers for, like, an adjacent career, but if the relevant dynamics had hit me with different timing - if I weren’t already somewhat successful in a completely unrelated career when Pixel Poppers was no longer viable as a hobby - maybe I would have.

This might not be a rational reaction, but both of these events just give me a vague sadness for the inevitable swallowing of art by commercialism. I feel like I’m watching beautiful sandcastles get washed away by the tide, unable to fully ignore the gnawing feeling in the back of my mind that the tide is just going to keep coming further and further in.

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