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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Score Forth and Multiply

Many games use numeric scores to rate your performance. In some, the same performance will always earn the same score; in others, there are permanent or equippable bonuses acquired over time that apply a multiplier to increase your score and the same performance will earn different scores depending on what multipliers are in effect.

I think the persistent score multipliers are almost always a bad idea as they decouple performance and feedback. I’ll explain.

Read more...

#gaming #video games #alphabear #muse dash #snowboarding the next phase #high scores #game design

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The problem isn't loot boxes; it's whale hunting

I’m not very optimistic that the right regulation will come out of this whole loot box controversy. For one thing, it’s very hard to write a law that prevents evil loot boxes while not preventing similar things that aren’t evil. But even if you solve that - loot boxes aren’t the real problem.

The real problem is the reliance on “whales” to monetize games. This causes games to be designed to be bottomless money pits to exploit vulnerable users. Loot boxes are just the current favorite way to build a money pit; there are many other strategies and if we block loot boxes designers will pivot to those other strategies.

If we wanted to actually solve this through regulation, we need to start from “How do we prevent whale hunting?” rather than “How do we prevent loot boxes?” I don’t know how to write either one of these laws, but even if we figure out a really great loot box law, we’re treating a single symptom rather than curing the disease.

#gaming #video games #loot boxes #monetization

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If I haven’t played it, it’s new to me!

I love how finding a new-to-me genre opens the door to a wealth of games featuring already-polished formulas.

Like, I didn’t check out Picross until Pokémon Picross and then I immediately dove into the Picross e series which I still haven’t run out of. I didn’t play any Musou games until Dynasty Warriors 8 and I don’t think I’m ever going to run out of those. And most recently, I tried Horizon Chase Turbo on PlayStation Plus, really liked it, and now have a trove of Out Run clones to explore (currently I am mostly hooked on Highway Runners on my phone).

Being late to the party is awesome.

#gaming #video games #picross #musou #out run #horizon chase turbo #highway runners

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Achievement Guides Highlight Flaws

Sometimes you can learn more about a game’s flaws from an achievement guide than its reviews.

This makes sense, since learning how to get all of a game’s achievements requires engaging much more closely with its mechanics and systems. (It’s the same reason Joseph Anderson plays games on the hardest available difficulty before reviewing them, to expose the flaws of their combat systems and such - he mentioned this in his God of War video though that is currently unavailable due to a presumably-bullshit copyright claim.)

Since Horizon Chase Turbo recently went free on PlayStation Plus and reviews are generally positive, I tried it out and it made a good first impression. I then checked the trophy guide and found an explanation of why only two of the five stats on each car actually matter, an exploit for getting around difficulty spikes in collecting “race coins”, and tips for dealing with the game’s aggressive rubber-banding and cheating AI. Very revealing.

#gaming #video games #game reviews #achievement design #horizon chase turbo #joseph anderson

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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