Thoughts

Quick, short, often niche posts about games. Sometimes they are brief looks at concepts in art, design, culture, and psychology. Other times they are reactions to specific news items or just something silly that came to mind.

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Mario 64's punishment gets in the way of its exploration

I’m revisiting Super Mario 64 as part of Super Mario 3D All-Stars and it really strikes me how much the game’s strictness and punishment get in the way of what makes it great, and in particular the way it treats learning challenges as though they were mastery challenges.

To me, Mario 64 is a colorful toybox that invites exploration. It’s at its best when imparting a real sense of discovery, presenting the player with a series of shiny toys and allowing the player to experiment and discover new ways to play with them. And it’s at its worst when it’s slapping the toys out of your hand because you are playing with them wrong.

As I wrote in my review, as you progress it’s increasingly “the case that a single mistake kills Mario, which ejects you from the level completely and requires you to carefully make your way back to where you were before you can experiment any further.” (And unlike the Virtual Console on the Wii U, in 3D All-Stars there are no save states available to guard against this - one way in which this release is actually a step back.) I find myself much less interested in, say, scouring levels for all eight red coins if I’m likely to die while looking for number six and then have to collect the first five all over again. That kind of thing is what got me to put the game down when I played it before. I like the exploration by itself, and I can handle a tough skill challenge, but when the skill challenge interrupts the exploration - when I can’t experiment or practice because I keep getting kicked out of the level - that’s when I just get frustrated.

So I’m trying something different this time: I’m using a guide. Not for every star, but for any where I die at least twice trying to figure it out. That means that for stars where the fun exploration is unhindered by punishment, that experience can remain intact. And stars that are just difficult without requiring exploration are also fine. But for stars where there’s a punishing skill challenge interfering with the exploration, I just skip the exploration part and take it as a skill challenge.

If it were up to me, I’d turn off the punishment instead of the exploration for those mixed cases. I’m pretty confident I’d enjoy this game more if Mario couldn’t die. But I’ll take what I can get, and this might be enough that I’ll actually defeat Bowser this time.

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Buying the Farm

After eleven years, FarmVille is shutting down at the end of 2020.

I never tried FarmVille. As I once discussed, I wasn’t exactly a fan of what it represented - games successfully hijacking prosocial behavior for profit. Now, though, it seems almost quaint. I mean, on the same day I saw this news, I also saw that EA is promoting FIFA lootboxes in a children’s magazine. Keeping in mind all the other controversies of the past decade, it’s hard not to feel bizarrely wistful about the gaming culture problems of yesteryear.

But here’s what really does bother me about FarmVille’s shutdown: the reason for it and the impact on games preservation. Per the announcement, this is happening because “Adobe will stop distributing and updating Flash Player for all web browsers, and Facebook will stop supporting Flash games on the platform completely after December 31st, 2020.”

Whatever your feelings about FarmVille as a game, it’s undeniably a significant part of gaming history. It peaked in 2010 at 83.76 million monthly active users (about seven times the peak World of Warcraft reached in the same year of 12 million subscribers). It would be difficult to overstate its legacy on the design of social and mobile games over the next decade (not to mention directly inspiring Ian Bogost’s infamous Cow Clicker).

There are many, many reasons to be nostalgic for Flash and sad for its passing. Few of them had as much impact as FarmVille.

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New Games, New Players

I’ve seen a lot of different breakdowns of the different kinds of players and what they look for in games, but only now has it occurred to me that the reason the breakdowns keep changing is because games themselves keep changing. This analysis by Nick Yee presents nine different “player segments” - and two of them (Skirmisher and Gladiator) are described as looking for “team arenas” for different reasons.

“Team arenas” haven’t always been available as a gaming experience and only rose to prominence in the past decade or so. Before then, the sort of people who would seek out team arenas were around, but there were fewer games (if any at all) to scratch that itch, and these people were less likely to get into games. Thus these personality types were less represented in the overall subculture of “gamers.” Once these experiences became more feasible, these people became gamers and emerged as distinct player segments.

This is why I’m saddened by loss of variety of game experiences. It’s also why I like seeing game experiences outside the mainstream narrative find success. And as games continue to grow, I can’t help but wonder at the as-yet-uninvented types of game experience on the way that will create brand new player segments by giving even more people what they’ve been looking for.

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Content Gating and Repeat Playthroughs

I think it’s the case in general that games that have significant non-mechanical content (like, say, a lot of story and dialog scenes) should ideally provide players with means to skip the mechanical challenges and still enjoy the other content (an argument that deserves a fuller treatment, but here’s where I’ve given it the most attention so far).

But I think this is the case especially for New Game Plus modes or repeat playthroughs. Even if you’d argue that normal first playthroughs shouldn’t have this option and the player must earn their fun, they’ve done that now. Why not let them revisit the parts they’re most interested in?

A couple years back, I played Solo, a relationship personality quiz / puzzle platformer. It was interesting, and I’m a bit curious to replay it to consider how my views on relationships have changed since then - but I have no interest in going through all the same block-moving puzzles again in order to do so. Why not let me load my clear save to restart with all the puzzles still solved?

And now I’m playing CrossCode, which does some great stuff with story and characters. In theory, I might like to do a close reading article about it like I did for Q.U.B.E: Director’s Cut, but there is simply no way I’d suffer through everything that frustrated me about the game again, especially now that I knew the story and will no longer be driven by needing to find out what happens to these characters.

Even if we can’t get full-on “story mode” in most games, I wish it were normal to at least unlock it upon completion of a playthrough.

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It turns out that more people are playing...

It turns out that more people are playing CrossCode on Xbox Game Pass than on Switch and PS4 put together. This is wholly unsurprising.

On console and on mobile, subscription models mean that price is no longer a barrier for individual games. Once the monetary cost of trying a game is literally zero, players are far more willing to try way more games. And it’s clear that the greatest beneficiaries of this are weird indie games that players wouldn’t otherwise be confident enough to spend money on.

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Cross My Heart

I’ve complained a lot about CrossCode, so I thought I should talk about why I’m still playing it. What I love about it. And that’s the story and characters.

I’ve been holding off on talking about this aspect because I’m not done with the game yet - I’m about thirty hours in (and I’ve seen a couple people say it’s fifty hours long) and later surprises could certainly change what I have to say. But the story and characters have been so consistently excellent that I feel totally safe heaping on some praise.

A lot of what I could say is positive but generic. The writing is good. Characters have distinct and consistent personalities and quirks, and there seems to be a ton of incidental dialog reacting to various enemies and environmental features to make them feel more alive and organic. Characters are likable (except for Apollo, but we’ll discuss him another day). The storytelling is fantastic, giving out answers and asking more questions at possibly the perfect rate and making sure you have reasons to care about things and people before asking you to care about them.

But there’s some more specific praise deserved here as well. The following will have minor spoilers.

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Cross-Phase Challenge

CrossCode’s aggressive combination of genres also results in a particularly brutal challenge profile.

I previously wrote an article defining four “phases of challenge” - in short, preparation is getting ready to deal with challenges (research, practice, grinding), strategy is defining a framework for handling challenges (making plans, choosing loadouts), tactics is making choices in response to specific situations (game state awareness, choosing what to do in the moment), and action is communicating the choice back into the game (hitting the right buttons at the right time).

Different players have different tolerance and interest levels for the different phases, which has implications for a game’s potential audience. Having high tactics challenge, for example, limits a game’s audience to people who enjoy that kind of challenge. Having high tactics challenge and high strategy challenge limits the audience to people who enjoy both, which is a smaller group.

CrossCode has high challenge in all four phases. Here’s the breakdown as I see it for the game’s main loops of exploration, combat, and puzzles:

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CrossCode's Assist Mode

I claimed that CrossCode’s skill tests can block off its story. It is worth noting that the developers did try to prevent this. Like Celeste, CrossCode has an Assist Mode. As the developers explained:

“We have created CrossCode with a certain idea in mind, as a certain experience, defined by us. However, if players do not enjoy this experience, the Assist Mode gives them the option to adjust the experience for them for whatever reason. We are not here to judge anyones skills or feelings and if someone wants a different experience, that is absolutely fine for us. We are not dictating a certain experience although we’d love everyone to play the game as we designed it. But love means that at some point to let go as well. And who are we to forbid players to enjoy certain parts just because they dislike (or can’t complete) other parts?”

I applaud this sentiment (as should not be surprising to anyone who’s read my posts) and want to encourage every game that blocks content with skill challenges to include Assist Modes. And frankly the one in CrossCode helps a lot and is the reason I’m still playing the game at all. I don’t want to come across as attacking it at all - but it’s clear that it was added after the fact and I’m confused by a few things about it.

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