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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Permanence, Patches, and Physical Media

The excellent Saints Row: The Third just came to Switch. Unfortunately, it’s reportedly plagued by performance issues and glitches - and the day one patch has been delayed.

I hate to see a game I love have a troubled launch, but the delayed patch also calls attention to the general practice of day one patches, which is common enough now that it wouldn’t have even registered to me if it weren’t delayed. It’s normal to pop in a new game - even one purchased on launch day - and have it immediately download a patch. Enough so that at least for me, it’s been easy to forget that this means the shipped game - the one you just bought - is unfinished.

And, I get it. I get that it takes time to press/burn/whatever and distribute the physical games, and from a financial perspective it makes sense to use the time between then and launch to continue to polish and improve the game rather than delay the launch (though that does also create the risk of poor early reviews due to delayed patches, as Saints Row: The Third on Switch sadly illustrates).

But one of the supposed advantages of buying games physically is that you aren’t reliant on the internet to play them. Someday, the Switch eshop servers will get shut down. If I lose the data on my Switch’s memory card after that, I won’t be able to redownload and play any of the games I bought digitally. I will still be able to play the games I bought physically. But only the unpatched versions. And looking at my shelf, for almost all of my Switch games that means a noticeably worse version of the game.

Live-service games, patches, and updates mean there’s less and less reason to buy games physically now. The preservation value of the physical media is significantly lessened. These days, I only buy physical because on consoles it often somehow costs less. (Which is its own rant for another time.)

It’s tempting to think of things we buy as permanent, but in many cases we’re really just paying for the experience of having something for some amount of time.

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Musou Tactics

After playing Fire Emblem Warriors, I thought I was super into Musou games. After moving on to the (earlier release) Hyrule Warriors, while I do still enjoy Musou it turns out that what I was super into was Fire Emblem Warriors. In particular, its tactical depth.

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Easy Mode: You Gotta Want It

So, one of the positions in the whole Sekiro/Soulsborne/difficulty/easy-mode debate is what I would sum up as “easy mode should be there for the players who need it.” A couple of examples:

  • Jarrod Johnston explains why he’s no longer anti-Easy, mentioning that previously he “never thought that someone might not have the ability to improve, and it took a while for [him] to understand that getting through a tough game can be more than just a matter of time and commitment.”

  • Mark Brown explains his complicated view on questions like “Should Dark Souls have an Easy Mode?”, making a few statements like, “I’m in favor of giving people more ways to play if they need them…” but emphasizing the importance of making sure players know what the intended experience is. He also describes Celeste’s Assist Mode by saying, “This isn’t an easy mode that I might switch down to if the game’s kicking my butt. It’s an assist mode that’s just there for those who really feel they need it.”

On the surface, I’m in agreement with these folks - we all want easy modes or similar accommodations in games. We’re on the same side of the overall debate. But I’d sum up my position slightly differently, as “easy mode should be there for the players who want it.” It’s only one word of difference, but I think it’s an important one.

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I know hoarding restorative items is a joke, but...

I know hoarding restorative items is a joke, but it still rubs me the wrong way when games have an auto-revive item that gets used automatically when you die just because it was in your inventory. Like, those things are usually expensive or rare; let me save it for a tough boss fight instead of burning it one screen after a save point because my finger slipped.

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The Value of Fake Achievement

A long time ago, I wrote about how games can present fake achievement which can be abused by players in unhealthy ways. Someday I’d like to revisit this topic and discuss how fake achievement can be used in healthy ways.

For example, here’s an article about experiments showing that “meaningless rituals” can improve feelings of self-discipline and thereby improve actual self-control. Sometimes, going through defined steps and completing goals - even empty ones that accomplish nothing - make us feel like we can do things and we can then bring that motivation to our actual real-life goals.

I’ve had motivational rough patches where, say, completing quests in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was a vital part of my writing process. And plenty of people have suggested that, say, Stardew Valley could be helpful for players with depression, or Minecraft for players with ADHD, due to the way their goals are structured.

Fake achievement in games can be a stepping stone and not just a crutch. I think that’s worth a closer look.

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Put off by Pickups

In many games, enemies drop money, items, or other resources. Sometimes this is figurative - you just receive those resources when you defeat the enemy - but other times it’s literal, with the resources appearing as pickups where the enemy was defeated and not being received until you go collect them.

I think the pickup approach is almost always a bad idea.

To illustrate why, I’ll start with an example of a game that does it well: Super Stardust HD.. An Asteroids-like shooter where you navigate a crowded level avoiding and destroying hazards, safely collecting the pickups dropped by enemies and rocks is part of the always-be-moving-always-be-shooting challenge. But it’s more interesting than that, since some pickups change over time and you might want to let them change before you nab them - plus, boosting through a large number of point pickups in one go rewards a significant bonus, so there’s a risk/reward trade-off. The point is - collecting the pickups is just as interesting a part of the gameplay as destroying the enemies in the first place. It challenges the same skills and presents similar interesting decisions.

This isn’t the case in most games. Usually, collecting the pickups isn’t interesting at all; it’s just another thing you have to do. Defeating the enemy is usually the interesting and challenging part, and going over to collect the pickup is usually an extra rote step you are obligated to take for no clear reason and with no interesting challenge or decision involved.

As a player, your instinct might be to minimize the time the interesting action is interrupted by uninteresting action and just collect all the pickups at once after defeating all the enemies. But obnoxiously often, games punish or prevent this - pickups fade away after a few seconds, or the action continually leads you away from where pickups have already dropped, or defeating the last enemy immediately ejects you from the area without letting you collect anything. So your attempt to maximize the enjoyability of the game is punished by the game robbing you of the rewards you’ve already earned in combat.

It is fun seeing the resources drop, but there’s no reason to force the player to collect them. (Oddly, Hyrule Warriors recognizes this with rupees which shower colorfully out of enemies and pots before being collected automatically but still obliges the player to pick up dropped materials and weapons which are much easier to miss and much more valuable.) Some games - I think Kingdom Hearts did this, I’m not sure if the sequels all do - include optional upgrades that increase your pickup collection radius, allowing you to mostly forget about the tedious collection and just enjoy the game as it should have been all along.

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Easy Modes and Backward Reasoning

I think my ironically-favorite part of the discourse around difficulty and easy modes in Sekiro and Soulsborne games is that anti-easy folks make both of these claims:

  1. Adding an easy mode to a Soulsborne game would ruin the intended experience of overcoming challenge through persistence and learning.
  2. Soulsborne games already have an easy mode since you can summon a friend.

I don’t know if I’ve heard any individual person say both these things together - the kettle logic might be a little too obvious if you’re actually saying “Easy mode would be bad, and anyway they already have it and that’s good!” But I also don’t think I’ve seen anyone really address the contradiction here.

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Video Makers: Publish Your Dang Transcripts

While I was doing the reading for the spreadsheet moment post, I had some trouble finding the Extra Credits video I wanted to reference. I watched it over eight years ago and I couldn’t remember who had said it or where - I just had this memory of someone drawing a distinction between “calculations” and “incomparables” in game design and claiming it was bad to pass off the former as the latter.

I had the terms and the framing right, and it was still very difficult to search the video up - because there’s no transcript online. Basically I got lucky and someone used the terms in the comments of a tangentally-related blog post and I was able to follow the thread.

THIS IS WHY IT SUCKS HOW MUCH OF GAME ANALYSIS AND CRITICISM HAS MOVED TO VIDEO. Even though I was using exactly the right search terms, I was getting basically nothing.

This is terrible for preservation, terrible for discoverability, terrible for research. This isn’t the only time I’ve failed to find something I’m sure I read some years back - and I’m sure some of those times it was because it was actually in a video and now impossible to find. And how many times have I searched for existing thought on a particular topic and just not found the great videos that exist on it because I’m not already following those creators - when that should have been my introduction to those creators?

I don’t understand this because there’s such an easy fix: just publish your transcript along with your video. You had to write the script anyway; just put it online so people can actually find your work and you can grow your audience and your influence. I do this for my videos - why does almost nobody else do it?

#video essays #games criticism

Tags: Thought

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The Spreadsheet Moment

So, a failure mode with buffs is when they present obligatory inscrutable math problems. Buffs aren’t the only thing that does that - this is an example of a more general failure mode in games. Jay Wilson, game director for Diablo III, calls it the “spreadsheet moment”:

There is a point I call the ‘spreadsheet moment’ where the variables have become so complicated that the average player can’t make a decision about their character or an item in their head. They require a spreadsheet, not for perfect optimization, but just to get an idea of what they’re doing. I’ve been known to map out abilities for a game I love in a spreadsheet for optimization. As a designer I want that level of depth in a game I make, but there is a point where you dump so much math on a player that they’re no longer capable of just making a decision and running with it because it’s what they like. When that point occurs we all portal back to town and alt-tab to the internet so someone who is better at math can make the decision for us.

Gamers are smart. They can feel when the math has gotten so complex they can’t process it in their heads, and the reaction is to assume that there ‘must’ be a clear correct singular decision. We desire that correct decision because humans like to apply order to things that seem chaotic. When we’re that sure of a singular right way to do something, no one wants to be the dummy who did it the “wrong” way. Unfortunately when players enter this mindset they’re no longer making the choice they want to make, for the sake of fun, but rather the choice they feel they have to make for the sake of being right.

I would argue there’s more going on here than just the complexity of the math - as I mentioned, Valkyria Chronicles grades and rewards you based on your efficiency, making it increasingly painful to make “wrong” decisions in combat - you’ll have fewer resources for the next mission making it even more important to avoid “wrong” decisions in a self-reinforcing cycle. But in a game like Borderlands an enemy drops the same loot whether you kill it in five seconds or six, so it’s less important to pick the absolute best gun. So even though the math on which guns are better is arguably more complex than the math on whether you should buff your soldiers, I’m much more comfortable eyeballing the guns and proceeding based mainly on feel.

And the clarity of the math matters a lot too. Explicit numbers with obvious meanings can still interact to create the “spreadsheet moment,” but if the numbers or their meaning is obscured, things get worse. As Shamus Young put it:

A good system is clear and understandable right away, but will reveal interesting trade-offs once you get to know it. (Diablo 2)

A boring system is straightforward and there is always a single, optimal answer. (Most BioWare games, at least until they abandoned gear-hoarding altogether.)

A bad system is one where you have no idea what decision you’re making and you have to do a bunch of homework and run a spreadsheet before you can know which hat you should wear.

A horrible system is one where you have to read the wiki just to know what options you should be researching. A system where you have over twenty attributes and most of them are synonyms. A system where you can read the wiki, a forum thread, and a leveling guide, and still not really have any idea what you’re doing because nobody agrees on how the stats work, which ones might be bugged, or if all of their calculations were made obsolete by the latest patch.

It’s easy to miss this amongst the other complaints, but there’s another key factor here as well - “interesting trade-offs” are part of a “good system” in Shamus’s nomenclature. He said this as part of a discussion of stats in World of Warcraft, where he argued that complex stats were particularly obnoxious because they generally boiled down to a simple trade-off of “efficiency versus survivability”. In his view (which I agree with), “you should never have more complexity than depth” and should present “decisions [which] are easy to understand but difficult to make” instead of ones where you have to do a bunch of research or math to find the unambiguous but uninteresting correct answer.

Extra Credits refers to the difference in these kinds of decisions as “calculations” (which are fundamentally math problems to optimize specific variables like DPS with options that can be cleanly quantified and ranked) and “incomparables” (which are more qualitative trade-offs like between a stealth or or combat build with no objective best option). With incomparables, players must make an actual choice based on personal preference and play-style - but we run into problems when games “mask calculations as incomparables”. Trying to make a calculation more interesting by making it more complex doesn’t stop there from being an objectively correct option - it just makes it harder to tell which one it is.