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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The Texture of Musou

Other People: Why are there so many Dynasty Warriors games and spin-offs? They’re all the same. Play one and you’ve played them all.

Me: Why are the Dynasty Warriors games all two hundred hours long when there are so many of them? I’ll never be able to play them all!


I love musou games but they are so bad about having texture that drastically outlasts structure and has attached achievements. Primarily through grind and random drops that are tuned to be much slower than necessary. I suppose this is a good thing if you’re looking to get a lot out of each game… and you’re okay with what you get being repetition that is not meaningfully contextualized.

After I beat One Piece: Pirate Warriors 3, I got the platinum trophy for it by grinding it out half an hour every day while walking on the treadmill. That was okay. It was a reasonable way to enhance my exercise routine.

I’m about to beat Dragon Quest Heroes II and while I probably could grind out the platinum on the treadmill, I don’t think I’m going to. Dragon Quest Builders 2 awaits, and even aside from that I have an embarrassingly large backlog and a full GameFly queue (which includes several other musou games I haven’t tried yet). I don’t regret any of the hundred hours I’ve spent on Dragon Quest Heroes II, but I don’t want to spend another hundred just farming for rare drops.

#gaming #video games #Musou #Dragon Quest Heroes II #dynasty warriors #one piece: pirate warriors 3 #achievement design #dragon quest heroes

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Structure vs Texture

Broadly, the content and mechanics in a game can be divided into those that provide structure and those that provide texture.

This is an idea I want to refine further (and the names may well change along the way) but I think it’s a useful distinction already. And there are some important implications for balancing them properly.

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I have such mixed feelings about Tetris 99.

Tetris 99 launched as a Nintendo Switch Online exclusive. Since it was an online-only battle royale, you needed the online subscription to play anyway, so this didn’t really hurt anyone - and making it free to subscribers was a win for Nintendo’s somewhat-maligned online service. It got even cooler when they started doing periodic tournaments that rewarded My Nintendo coins.

But then things got confusing. The game received a DLC expansion called the “Big Block DLC” which added two offline modes. Naturally it didn’t make sense for these to only be available to online subscribers, so the base Tetris 99 game download was no longer exclusive and could be downloaded by anyone for free - though if you didn’t have an online sub, it was useless to you unless you also shelled out ten bucks for the DLC. And if you did have the sub, this game that had initially been a special gift now had additions and improvements you wouldn’t get without spending more money.

This is a weird structure that damages the positioning of Tetris 99 as a nice bonus for getting an online sub, and Nintendo hasn’t really offered anything to replace it (even the NES releases have been getting rather anemic). To me it reads like the initial Tetris 99 release was a low-confidence experiment, and once the game was a hit the developer is now trying to make more money off of it in ways that the original setup didn’t cleanly enable.

Now another wedge is being driven between Nintendo Switch Online and Tetris 99 - and this one’s even more confusing. The game is receiving a physical release that includes the DLC and a one-year online subscription and (at least in the US) is priced the same as those two things put together (the DLC is ten dollars, a year of online is twenty, the physical Tetris 99 that includes both of these is thirty).

One hopes that the DLC content is included on the game card and it isn’t just bundled with a code - otherwise, the card itself is basically just a dongle and the internet is required for it to be any use at all. But even if it is on the card, it feels weird to me that the game forces you to buy an online subscription. If you wanted to play this game online anyway, why attach it to a piece of plastic that makes the game harder to play because it needs to be in the game slot? And if you didn’t, why would you pay triple the cost of the offline modes for it?

At this point it would make so much more sense for Tetris 99 to just be a ten dollar game with all its content, including an online mode that naturally requires the online subscription to play. And I suspect that the main reason this isn’t how it’s structured is due to the legacy of how the game launched - as a free Nintendo Switch Online bonus. The unusual and high-profile nature of that launch surely got the game a lot more attention than it otherwise would have - it seems entirely possible to me that it would have failed without that early boost, given how many simultaneous online players it needs to have to be successful. But it’s made things weird now that it’s trying to monetize further.

#gaming #video games #tetris 99 #nintendo switch online #nintendo switch

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Dominant Mechanics in Kao the Kangaroo: Round 2

I can’t stop thinking about this weirdly self-defeating segment I played in Kao the Kangaroo: Round 2.

Kao 2 is a PS2-era collectathon platformer that was recently ported to Steam. Early in the game is a level called “The Great Escape,” which is one of those something-big-is-chasing-you-so-run-toward-the-camera sequences where you can barely see what’s coming. (Here’s someone playing it if you want to see it in action.) You are told that to outrun the bear that’s chasing you, you’ll need to pick up the speed boost power-ups that are littered on the path ahead, and that you’ll be able to find them because they are preceded by trails of coins.

So, even though you can’t really see what’s coming, you’re still given some advance warning so you can get to the right place to collect the speed boosts - and the pickup radius on the coins and speed boosts is quite generous. Also, each speed boost pickup lasts far longer than the amount of time it’ll take to get to the next one - you can miss a lot and as long as you don’t miss too many in a row you’ll be fine.

In principle, this seems basically fine and roughly in line with the relatively low level of challenge on offer for the first portion of the game. There are, however, a few problems with this setup. The first issue is that coins stay collected even if you die, so on repeat attempts any trails you’ve already picked up are no longer there. The second problem is far worse.

The path features bottomless pits and bodies of water. Stepping into any of these is instant death and they are not foreshadowed the way the coin trails foreshadow the speed boosts. As a result, they completely dominate this section mechanically. I died several times from pits and water and never once came close to running out of speed boost - it was only after several attempts that I even noticed there was a speed boost meter in the corner of the screen that drained over time and was refilled by picking up the boosts. The speed boost mechanic could have been removed completely without really changing this segment.

The way the speed boost system is set up makes me think this was intended to be a fairly forgiving level (which feels appropriate to me for an early level that’s the first use of a gameplay style that also is inherently more difficult than what’s previously been on offer). But the instant-death obstacles you can’t really see coming turn it into a strict and punishing memorization gauntlet that’s a huge difficulty spike compared to the surrounding levels - and they render pointless the mechanic created specifically for this type of level.

I’d love to know how the developers felt about it, but as a player it feels like design by committee where a lack of unified vision lead to compromised mechanics. It’s like taking a driving lesson with an attentive instructor with their own brake pedal to protect you from any mistakes, but then having the lesson take place on narrow platforms suspended over the grand canyon.

#gaming #video games #kao the kangaroo #incoherent design

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Today's first world problem: Dragon Quest...

Today’s first world problem: Dragon Quest Builders 2 is out but I can’t play it yet because I haven’t finished Dragon Quest Heroes II.

#gaming #video games #Dragon Quest Builders 2 #dragon quest heroes ii #dragon quest #dragon quest builders 2 is my most anticipated game in a long time #but dragon quest heroes ii is also really good #this is a good problem to have

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Muse Dash Trims The Fat

Muse Dash is a rhythm game with a simple control scheme. Aside from menu navigation, the actual rhythm gameplay only requires two buttons.

The player character is on the left side of the screen, running constantly to the right. Threats come from the right side of the screen in one of two lanes - at ground level, or above it. When the threat reaches the player character, the player is supposed to hit a button to “knock back” the threat - one button for threats in the top lane (by default, any button on the left side of the controller will do) and a second button for threats in the bottom lane (right side of the controller). There are various twists and complications laid on top of this - threats that require hitting both buttons at the same time, or holding one or both buttons, or mashing the buttons repeatedly, and so on - but they are all dealt with using just two buttons.

(This is how it works on PC and I assume on Switch as well. Probably on mobile you tap either the left or right side of the screen instead?)

My gut reaction to seeing this was to assume that Muse Dash must be simple and easy, but there’s no actual reason this has to be true. In fact, Muse Dash gets quite difficult in most of the standard ways. Reducing the number of buttons used changes very little. After all, thinking back on all the rhythm games I’ve played it’s rare for the player to be required to press more than two buttons at once. Consider two scenarios:

  1. In Muse Dash, a threat comes in the top lane and then one comes in the bottom lane.
  2. In Hatsune Miku, there’s a prompt for D-Pad Left and then one for Circle.

The actual actions taken by the player here are very similar.

  1. Read the on-screen cues.
  2. Recognize you’ll want to press a button with your left hand and then one with your right hand.
  3. (Miku only) Remember the controller layout and move your thumbs over the correct buttons.
  4. Press with your left thumb and then with your right thumb.

The only real difference here is that Muse Dash doesn’t quiz the player on the controller layout or force them to move their thumbs. Lanes correspond directly to hands - top lane threats mean pressing with your left thumb, bottom lane threats mean pressing with your right thumb.

Personally, I’ve been taking rapid-fire quizzes on the PlayStation controller layout since 2000, so the extra step of remembering which button is where doesn’t trouble me much and I barely notice it. But to someone new to the controller and its apparently-arbitrary arrangement of buttons, this step makes the game far less approachable. They have to memorize the controller before they can be effective at the game. There’s an extra source of difficulty up front, and it isn’t the thing that makes the game interesting. The player has shown up to feel the rhythm and before they can do that they must perform rote memorization.

Now, this might be worth it. Guitar Hero on Easy or Medium is much like Muse Dash in that the player doesn’t have to move their hand and the colored notes correspond directly to fingers. Hard and Expert difficulties use more fret buttons than the player has available fingers, so they have to move their hand. Accessibility aside, I’d argue that the game is better when it forces you to move your hand because the game is about pretending to play the guitar which in real life also requires moving your hand. It’s extra effort and difficulty that isn’t strictly required - the game easily could have been designed to use only four frets - but it’s directly tied to what makes the game interesting, which is the fantasy of being, well, a guitar hero.

But what about Hatsune Miku? Your actions in this game are abstract and not a metaphor for anything specific except music itself. What matters is that they are rhythmic and flow-inducing. So what benefit is gained by adding controller memorization to the challenge?

I’m not ready to conclude that controller memorization adds no value to Miku-like games, but maybe trimming it out as Muse Dash does is just letting the interesting part of the game be the hard part.

#gaming #video games #rhythm games #difficulty #muse dash #hatsune miku

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Guitar Hero Misled New Players

Guitar Hero is played with a guitar-shaped controller. The main inputs are the five differently-colored fret buttons and the strum bar. With one hand, the player holds down the fret buttons indicated by the differently-colored on-screen notes (in a simplified approximation of holding down the right strings at the right frets on a real guitar) and with the other hand the player presses the strum bar then when the notes scroll to the right point (in a simplified approximation of strumming the strings on a real guitar).

There are five fret buttons, but if you hold the guitar controller the standard way real guitars are held, your fretting hand wraps around the guitar neck and your thumb is stuck on the back. You’re thus left with only four fingers for the five fret buttons. This is presumably intentional - it forces you to move your hand up and down a little on the neck to press the correct frets, as you’d have to do with a real guitar.

But! This is only true once you get to Hard or Expert level play. On Easy, only the first three fret buttons are ever used. Medium increases it to four, and Hard finally uses all five. This means that the entire time you are playing on Easy or Medium and learning the game, you don’t have to move your fret hand. You are trained that red notes mean pressing your index finger, green ones mean pressing your middle finger, and yellow ones mean pressing your ring finger. (And on Medium, blue notes mean pressing your pinky.)

Then you start playing on Hard. Most songs don’t begin with an orange note, so you play the first several notes the same as you used to, and then an orange note appears. You slide your hand down one fret to press the orange fret button with your pinky. But then when a green note appears, what happens? What you should do is press with your index finger, because you’ve slid your hand one fret down. But you’ve been trained that green means middle finger, so there’s a good chance you’ll press with that instead even though it’s currently over the yellow fret button and you’ll play the wrong note.

For me and for the folks I’ve talked to, by far the hardest part of Hard mode wasn’t the increased density of the note charts or even moving to hit the orange notes. It was unlearning the habits taught by Easy and Medium so that once we had moved to hit the orange notes, we didn’t use the wrong fingers to hit the other notes. It was re-training ourselves to associate note colors not with fingers but with frets so that we could figure out which finger to use based on the fret and the current position of our hand. Once this was done, going up to Expert was comparatively simple.

I remember thinking at the time that while it was obviously correct to keep the note charts sparse for Easy and Medium, all five frets probably should have been used from the beginning. (And I think this is what later games ended up doing? I don’t know - the guitar skills transfer pretty well between games so I haven’t dipped back down to Easy or Medium in a long time.) And I’ve been thinking about this again because I’m on a bit of a rhythm game kick lately and have been seeing how different games treat their difficulty levels.

Guitar Hero’s error (if you consider it an error, as I do) was in treating two kinds of difficulty the same when they were actually very different. The first kind was density of the note chart, which is commonly tied to difficulty levels in rhythm games. This makes sense - a denser note chart requires a higher skill level, so as players get better they need denser charts to maintain flow (which I argue is the point of rhythm games).

While it may seem like the variety of different notes used is another source of difficulty that should scale similarly, I think this is a mistake. Learning the inputs and how they correspond to the game’s cues is most of learning to play the game. Guitar Hero withholding some of the frets from you at the start means it’s training you on an incomplete version of the game. That’s not inherently problematic, but you have to be careful about it or you’ll teach bad habits (like “color = finger” instead of “color = fret” in this case). Much like adding the double-jump in Runner3, adding the orange notes and forcing the player to move their hand doesn’t technically change the meaning of the other color notes, but it does mean that the simplest strategy for dealing with them and thus the one the player has likely internalized is now often incorrect.

The increased challenge of the denser note charts which more closely matched the real song being played and the forced fret-hand movement which more closely matched the hand motions of a real guitarist was good - this added challenge increased flow and immersion. This is a case of what’s hard about the game also being what’s interesting about it.

But challenge that comes from the fact that the game taught the player bad habits isn’t interesting in a game like Guitar Hero. It’s frustrating. You just deal with it until you unlearn the habits and the game can be fun again.

#gaming #video games #rhythm games #difficulty #guitar hero #player training

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What's hard about a game should also be what's interesting about it.

This is something that’s foundational enough to my beliefs about game design that I want to publish an article about it that I can point back to, but it’s also simple enough that I’m not sure there’s a full article’s worth to even be said about it.

What’s hard about a game should also be what’s interesting about it.

It’s the reason some reviewers disliked the focus on meter management in Pathologic 2, where the interesting stuff is the mystery and atmosphere.

It’s the reason why it’s frustrating to have your choices overturned by QTEs in Until Dawn, a game that sells itself as a game of decisions and not one of controller memorization.

It’s the common thread behind these house rules for card and board games that seek to eliminate memory- and inexperience-based challenge in order to emphasize interesting strategic-based challenge.

It’s the reason why my proposed changes to Akiba’s Trip combat are “specifically looking to reduce uninteresting difficulty - things that are hard for stupid reasons. This actually allows for increasing difficulty in more interesting ways.”

What’s hard about a game should also be what’s interesting about it.

#gaming #video games #difficulty

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Premature Thoughts about Haven

So, the folks behind Furi are now working on a game called Haven. Details have been scarce but there’s now a gameplay trailer and press release with some more information.

The game is definitely on my radar, but the aspect I want to focus on right now is this quote from creative director Emeric Thoa:

“The story of a couple fighting for their freedom, an established relationship: what love looks like when you’ve moved past the early seduction phase, when you can be your true self with one another… I don’t think that’s been done much in video games.”

I agree with this and I’m interested to see it done well. The plan for Haven is especially interesting given that Thoa describes the game as “Journey meets Persona.” It’s unclear yet what this means (if indeed it means anything; it’s very easy to just list some popular games without that proving anything about your own game) but I find the Persona comparison intriguing.

Modern Persona games place a large emphasis on character relationships, and it looks like Haven will do the same. But where Persona provides a handful of varied characters with whom the player can establish relationships (in the game’s terminology, taking the “social link” from rank one to rank ten) it looks like Haven provides a single character with whom the player can explore an already established relationship (the social link starts at rank ten).

This feels like a bit of a gamble - if I imagine a Persona game providing only one social link with the combined depth that’s currently spread across all social links, that’s an exciting idea if the expanded social link is with my favorite character and a disappointing idea if it’s with my least-favorite character. The depth really only pays off if the player likes the characters.

But this isn’t really a fair comparison. Persona characters can be varied because there are several with the same depth. It’s good for the characters to have distinct personalities with traits that will endear them to some and put off others. No Persona character is everyone’s favorite, but every Persona character is somebody’s favorite. If you’re making a game with only one relationship, now the pressure’s on to make that character broadly likable, in a mass-market homogenization kind of way.

So I’m a little concerned that the characters in Haven could end up generic with any controversial edges filed off - tolerable to everyone, but not anyone’s favorites. Unobjectionable but unremarkable. I hope this isn’t the case. There isn’t really anything in the trailer that makes it seem likely; I’m just concerned about the market forces involved.

What is in the trailer, though, is a dialog choice. This seems like a possible solution, if done right - if there are many such choices and they don’t drastically change the story (so that there aren’t right and wrong choices) but do change the character personalities and interactions so they can be more extreme and more to the player’s liking. I’m not sure if that’s where Haven intends to take things, but I think it could be a great way to handle it.

#gaming #video games #haven #dating sim elements #persona

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Clicker Heroes 2 is a very interesting project.

The original Clicker Heroes is one of many idle/incremental games based on a series of concentric gameplay loops that get slower as you go, intended to provide a functionally infinite treadmill of progression. It does a few interesting things and it’s a mostly-harmless way to pass a few minutes here and there as long as you don’t get addicted and let it become a bottomless time-sink - the problem is, it’s free-to-play with microtransactions, so the developer/publisher is incentivized to try to hook the player. Once the game started leaning its design in this direction by adding a social element with daily responsibility, I wrote it off as (mildly) evil.

But the sequel is very specifically and purposefully avoiding this. The CEO of Playsaurus (the developer/publisher) put up a blog post in November 2017 explaining that Clicker Heroes 2 was a one-time purchase so that it could be a better and more ethical game. (My complaints about the fact that they needed to explain this is a separate rant.) This prompted me to pre-order Clicker Heroes 2 in support of their philosophy.

It’s still in Early Access, and while I don’t normally play games before they release I finally tried this one out after a recent major update when I was sick and wanted something low-pressure to play. And while there’s a lot about it that I like better than the original already, in its current form it’s hard to see how they’re going to give it long-term appeal.

I wrote in my review of the original that leveling up heroes speeds up the monster-killing loop, leveling up ancients speeds up the hero loop, and leveling up outsiders speeds up the ancient loop. This is true, but I left out the fact that the mechanics are complicated enough that you actually had some interesting choices to make along the way here. Like, the bonuses granted by various ancients actually fed into each other in interesting ways and enabled at least two different play styles. So even though you were repeatedly losing all progress on a given loop, you did it to get a bonus on the next loop and bring you further along your overall progression in a chosen direction.

Currently, Clicker Heroes 2 has a very different distribution of interesting choices between its loops. As you defeat monsters you gain experience levels and thus skill points, which allow you to buy skills that function sort of like the ancient bonuses in the first game. Alongside this is a brand-new and very interesting addition - the Automator. This allows you to set conditions and actions - for example, activate Clickstorm if Energy is at least 90% full. There are a lot of available conditions and actions and many rules can be active simultaneously, so you can set up quite complex systems and let the game mostly play itself. I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface but I still set up a very effective automation that let my character breeze through world after world with no intervention from me at all. Once I’d done that, I didn’t have to bother with combat or buying upgrades and I just opened the game periodically to spend accumulated skill points and further speed up the game’s self-driven progression.

Every thirty worlds (if I’m understanding correctly) your character must “gild” to continue. This causes you to lose all of your skills but gain a huge damage multiplier. Then you keep going, gain more levels and skill points and this time maybe explore a different section of the huge skill tree. You do keep your Automator setup, but until you get back the skills it relies on it’s not very useful.

And that’s where the problem is for me. You could certainly argue that this is my fault and not the game’s, but right now I don’t feel compelled to try a different build, because the gameplay is largely passive anyway once you get a build going. So I just feel like getting back the skills I gave up so my Automator setup will be effective again. But then I’m just expending effort to get back to where I was, with the only benefit from gilding being the damage multiplier - which is the least interesting possible reward. It doesn’t feel like further progression along a chosen direction, nor does it feel like I’m getting to try playing in new ways.

I acknowledge that this is a really hard problem Playsaurus is trying to solve - how do you make progression interesting indefinitely? I don’t think they’ve solved it yet, but the game is still in Early Access. I hope they figure it out, or at least get closer. I’d like to see Clicker Heroes 2 do well.

#gaming #video games #clicker heroes #clicker heroes 2 #early access #playsaurus #monetization