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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What Kind of Mage Are You?

What Kind of Mage Are You?

I made these some years back as results for a hypothetical personality test.

Mostly I wanted people to understand what I meant when I told them I was a Blue Mage. :)

#video games #personality test #final fantasy tactics a2

Tags: Thought

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A Beef With Buffs

Buffs are cool in concept (and I like Green Mages) but I feel like they are rarely implemented well.

One of my favorite examples of buffs done badly is Valkyria Chronicles. That game has a “command point” system that allows you to take a certain number of actions per round. A point can be spent to have a unit move and attack, but you can also spend points to execute “orders.” These include special options like evacuating fallen allies and buffs like increasing a soldier’s damage against certain enemy types. The trouble is, despite just being a numerical calculation it’s not at all obvious when it’s better to use an order to increase your damage output and then attack versus saving the command points to just attack multiple times.

This is because of two problems. First, the UI doesn’t explain how much difference the buffs actually make. If the numbers were clear you could do the math and figure out when the buffs were worth using. Cosmic Star Heroine leans heavily in this direction and is a great example of how to do this well. It has an unusual combat system in which most abilities can only be used once before they need to be recharged - the recharge action then recharges all of your depleted abilities. But it costs a turn, so it’s usually worth using most or all of your abilities first. Many abilities have buff-like effects or other interactions and all the numbers are clear, so it’s a complex but feasible analysis problem to figure out the optimal abilities to use in what order for the current situation. Buffs are thus an interesting tactical option that are often but not always correct to use.

The other problem with the Valkyria Chronicles approach is that the buffs are expensive and short-lived, meaning it’s often a close call whether they’re worth using even if you did have the numbers. World of Warcraft, at least back when I played it, was an example of the opposite approach here - most buffs were cheap enough compared to their duration that they were always obviously correct to use even if you didn’t look at the numbers. This meant they were more of a rote chore than a tactical decision but the result was a system that encouraged class diversity and balanced teams. If you had a Mage in your group everyone would have buffed Intellect, if you had a Priest everyone would have buffed health, and so on. These buffs might as well have been automatic passive bonuses, but they achieved their goal without creating any confusing decisions or making you stop playing to solve a math problem.

Games like Valkyria Chronicles where you can choose to trigger a short-lived no-numbers buff instead of taking an additional action give the player a math problem that is both uninteresting and obscured. There always is an optimal choice, it’s just hard to suss out. So you can either interrupt the action to look up and crunch the numbers or play on knowing you are often not doing the best thing - which is frustrating in games like Valkyria Chronicles that grade and reward you based on your efficiency.

In practice, I usually avoided using the buff orders. Having a unit move and attack was more fun than picking a buff from a menu anyway.

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Attention without Engagement

One of my pet peeves is when games require attention without providing true engagement. Usually this is through rote actions that require no skill or decision-making and might be entertaining or novel once but must be completed over and over again. It’s a very clear way for a game to show that it doesn’t respect the player’s time, which is one of the fastest ways for a game to lose my interest.

Some games seem to be built around these kinds of interactions. Pokémon Go turned out not to be a good game to play while walking the dog because the Pokémon encounters and PokéStop visits required too much attention despite having no real depth to them. Similarly, Pokémon Quest requires you to sit through its expeditions without providing much control over them.

I assume that what’s going on here is that difference audience segments have different complexity thresholds for gameplay to be engaging. For a kid, maybe the semi-interactive Pokémon Quest expeditions are entertaining. For people who want to take frequent breaks while walking, maybe Pokémon Go makes more sense. These games might not be bad, they might just be not for me, and that’s fine.

What puzzles me more is when this shows up in a game where most of the gameplay is more engaging. It feels similar to the endgame polish problem where testing just doesn’t uncover how tedious a particular repeated action becomes over extended play. Interface friction often falls into this - for example, buying fortune cookies or updating your Dream Town in Animal Crossing: New Leaf are things you’re encouraged to do on a daily basis but have several slow and unecessary steps that get really old when you’re doing them every day. I feel like when designing repeatable interactions in games, it’s important to ask, “How will the player feel about this after doing it a hundred times?”

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Locking songs in a rhythm game is a terrible idea.

I checked out Harmonix’s recent Amplitude remake. There’s a Campaign mode that’s apparently fifteen songs long, which is more than I wanted to commit to, so I went to Quick Play instead. I played a song, enjoyed it, played another song, kept enjoying it, and kept playing. There was a pleasantly smooth difficulty curve and I had a good time getting slightly better with each song and then moving on to the next slightly harder one. I kept thinking, “Okay, just one more song,” playing it, and then thinking that again.

And then I hit a wall. There weren’t any songs anymore. Or rather, there were, but I wasn’t allowed to play them. They were locked, and I’d have to either play Campaign mode or repeatedly replay the few songs I had access to in Quick Play in order to unlock them.

I would have thought that Harmonix would have learned by now after so many iterations of Guitar Hero and Rock Band not to lock songs in a rhythm game, but here we are. And just… why? Why do this? Why slam down a roadblock and prevent me from enjoying the game? If I felt like I needed to practice the easier songs before moving on to the hard ones, I’d do so. And if I felt like committing to a fifteen-song campaign, I’d do so. In the meantime, why stop me from trying out the songs individually and progressively, when I was having fun doing that?

My response wasn’t to switch over to Campaign mode or grind on the songs I’d already unlocked. My reaction was to put the game down. It’s been a few weeks and I haven’t come back to it. I don’t know whether I ever will.

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As glad as I am to see big-name game designers...

As glad as I am to see big-name game designers say that accessibility doesn’t compromise their vision (God of War’s Cory Barlog and VVVVVV’s Terry Cavanagh are the ones I’ve seen so far), and as much as it makes me respect them as creators, as a player I kind of… don’t care?

Like, if a couple movie directors came out and said they didn’t mind when people watching their movies at home pause them, that’s all well and good - but if they said the opposite, I’m still gonna hit pause when I have to go to the bathroom. I don’t really care if I’m breaking with their vision.

It’s great that they have a vision and all, but I’m the one having the experience and I’m going to use my own judgment and my own self-knowledge to improve it whether they want me to or not.

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Is Zelda a Metroidvania?

I don’t play a lot of Zelda-likes or Metroidvanias so maybe this is a dumb question, but I’ve picked up Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King (which is basically A Link to the Past) and, like, I think it’s a Metroidvania?

Wikipedia explains Metroidvanias this way:

Metroidvania games generally feature a large interconnected world map the player can explore, though access to parts of the world is often limited by doors or other obstacles that can only be passed once the player has acquired special items, tools, weapons or abilities within the game. Acquiring such improvements can also aid the player in defeating more difficult enemies and locating shortcuts and secret areas, and often includes retracing one’s steps across the map. Through this, Metroidvania games include tighter integration of story and level design, careful design of levels and character controls to encourage exploration and experimentation, and a means for the player to become more invested in their player character. Metroidvania games typically are sidescrolling platformers, but can also include other genre types.

Until that very last sentence, I feel like pre-Breath of the Wild Zelda fits this description perfectly. Wikipedia even notes that Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (which is the source of the “-vania” in the name) was inspired in large part by Zelda! Is the difference really just top-down versus side-view?

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Mobile Gaming Just Got Way More Exciting

I was recently lamenting to a friend the fact that right around when mobile technology was getting powerful enough to deliver console-quality experiences and designers were figuring out how to make good use of touchscreen controls, the horrible exploitative freemium monetization schemes took off, and we missed out on the possibility of a really amazing mobile game ecosystem.

The example that breaks my heart the most is Dynasty Warriors: Unleased which clearly could have presented a great musou-lite experience on the go, but was buried in layers of loot box crap. Similarly, I enjoyed both Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp and Fire Emblem Heroes a lot as games until their monetization schemes overshadowed the gameplay.

But now, as predicted by John Gruber, Apple is launching a subscription-based game service with access to a bunch of games with offline play, no IAP, no ads, and no data collection without player consent. And there are a bunch of quality devs and high-profile games confirmed for the service.

This is REALLY EXCITING. By lining up the incentives in this way, Apple is finally taking huge steps to fix the damage they’ve caused to the mobile gaming ecosystem. We might finally get some amazing mobile games and I can’t wait to see how it goes.

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Early Thoughts on Google Stadia

Google has announced that they are creating a streaming games platform called Stadia. The idea is you won’t need a console or even necessarily a controller if you already have a compatible one (and most modern console controllers appear to be compatible). You’ll be able to play games right in a browser on your TV/phone/tablet/PC via streaming. No extra download/installation required. Basically, it’s Netflix, except instead of streaming movies or TV, you’re streaming a video game and streaming back your controller inputs.

It’s worth noting that very little consumer-useful information is available yet. Nothing about how pricing will work (all-you-can-eat subscription like Netflix? rent games like the original PlayStation Now model? ad-based like YouTube? some combo?) or how expensive it’ll be. They’re also advertising it as capable of doing 4k video at 60fps - which would require an amount of bandwidth that’s implausibly high for most people’s internet connections.

But they have some big names on board - Doom Eternal and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey are confirmed for the service, and they’ve got Jade Raymond (creator of Assassin’s Creed) heading their in-house development studio where they will be developing first-party (probably exclusive?) titles.

With that background, here are my thoughts.

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Rejected conclusions for an essay about player...

Rejected conclusions for an essay about player freedom:

  • “You can have my Game Genie when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.”
  • “When it comes to games, my wallet votes Libertarian.”
  • “Come with me if you want to play.”
  • “Give me freedom to play, not free-to-play.”

#gaming #video games #game genie

Tags: Thought