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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Expawtation Meownagement

I think Bubsy: Paws on Fire! hurt its marketing and review scores by not incorporating Bit.Trip Runner into the name.

The upcoming Cadence of Hyrule is an interesting comparison point. Both games are non-traditional installments in established franchises (Bubsy, The Legend of Zelda) in the style of and by the developers of an unrelated rhythm-hybrid game (rhythm platformer Bit.Trip Runner, rhythm roguelike Crypt of the NecroDancer).

The Zelda/NecroDancer game is called Cadence of Hyrule for short - the full title is Cadence of Hyrule: Crypt of the NecroDancer Featuring The Legend of Zelda. The short title reflects that it’s a crossover - it’s the main character of NecroDancer, Cadence, in the setting of Zelda, Hyrule. The subtitle includes the name of both parent franchises, and makes it clear that this is more of a NecroDancer game than a Zelda game.

This is really solid expectation management, and it’s working. Whenever I see the game mentioned in a news item, it’s described as a Zelda spin-off or crossover. Not many people are likely to mistake it for a mainline Zelda title.

The Bubsy/Runner game is called Bubsy: Paws on Fire! - that’s the full title. There is no mention of Bit.Trip Runner at all. It’s just Bubsy.

The result is that people expect a Bubsy game unless they happen to look deeper and notice the different developer. A lot of people wouldn’t look that closely - even game reviewers and journalists are hit-and-miss with this and I certainly don’t see the game referred to as a spin-off or crossover in news items. And if you go in expecting traditional Bubsy, you may well end up surprised, confused, and disappointed by the actual gameplay - especially if you aren’t familiar with Bit.Trip Runner.

I really like the game and want to see it do well, but the mismatched expectations seem to have hurt the review scores. The most frustrating to me is Push Square’s 2/10 review which describes the game as “an auto-runner style platformer” and makes no reference to Bit.Trip Runner or developer Choice Provisions. There’s a lot I think is unfair or misleading about this review, but in particular I notice that a lot of the most valid complaints also apply to the Runner games but give no idea how the reviewer feels about those games.

Someone who dislikes Runner gameplay won’t like Paws on Fire! any more than someone who dislikes NecroDancer gameplay would like Cadence of Hyrule, but it’s much less clear that’s a consideration here - enough so that the reviewer doesn’t even bring it up and multiple commenters express disappointment that the game is bad since they like the Runner games. They took the reviewer’s word that the game was bad despite the reviewer failing to establish that the review even applied to players with their tastes.

I chimed in suggesting they give the game another look. I want Bubsy: Paws on Fire! to have the best possible chance to reach its audience.

#gaming #video games #bubsy: paws on fire! #cadence of hyrule #expectation management

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TY for the memories

I mentioned how I’m frustrated when games don’t treat rewards as rewards. There’s a more subtle and complex example of this in TY the Tasmanian Tiger 2.

Ty’s central gimmick is his collection of ‘rangs (boomerangs) with varying effects. Some of them affect environmental objects, such as fire ‘rangs that can melt ice or ice ‘rangs that can put out fires.

In TY 2, the Bush Rescue HQ is a safe zone where you can experiment with your abilities, similar to Peach’s castle in Super Mario 64. It’s dotted with minor platforming challenges that reward small amounts of in-game currency. But some of them require ‘rangs you don’t start with.

Tucked away on a particular rooftop is a broken-down generator. It’s a little hard to find and a little hard to get to. A mobile platform carrying some currency hovers in midair nearby - but too far away to jump to. It’s obviously a tutorial for the electric Zappyrang that can start up machinery - you’re supposed to wonder how to turn on the generator, remember it when you get the Zappyrang, come back and use it to get the currency, and then be all set for generators you encounter later in the game. The currency itself barely matters - it’s a small amount, just there to make sure you have a reason to remember the generator.

So when I got the Zappyrang, I excitedly went back to HQ to turn on that rooftop generator. And sure enough, the nearby platform came closer… and then moved away again. It went back and forth and even at its closest, I wasn’t sure it was quite close enough to jump to. I tried over and over and kept missing. Each attempt was separated by taking several seconds to climb back up to the rooftop (longer if I didn’t turn back in time and fell off the hill the building was on and had to get back up that first) and then waiting for the platform to come closer.

I didn’t even care about the damn currency - I could easily get more in less time. It was the principle. It was the fact that I’d gotten the Zappyrang and remembered to come back and find the generator. It was the fact that the setup implied that was supposed to be the hard part. I’d earned the reward, and collecting it was supposed to be easy.

But I never pulled it off. I eventually gave up and moved on. I still don’t know whether I was supposed to be able to make that jump or if there was something else I was supposed to do.

So to me, that moment failed in three ways, each of which increased my frustration.

First, by teasing a reward that was then withheld. As a Zappyrang tutorial, collecting the reward should have been dead simple: activating the generator should have moved the platform very close by and left it there so that it was easy to jump to.

Second, by being overly punishing. The platform could easily not have been positioned such that jumping for it meant going off a cliff if you missed and didn’t turn around in time. There was no reason for each attempt to take so long to get back to - this wasn’t part of some kind of endurance or mastery challenge.

Third, by providing unclear feedback. A ledge that you can almost jump to is actually the exact example I used to illustrate why challenge profiles should be clear - I had no way to tell whether I was supposed to be able to make the jump or not. It seemed unreasonably hard, but I saw no indication that there was anything else I was supposed to do to get onto that moving platform. If there was in fact another step, that should have been made clear; otherwise the jump should not have been borderline-impossible.

By itself, this was not enough to make me stop playing. But it absolutely decreased my confidence that I could trust the game’s designers to provide a quality experience. And when I ran into other issues later on, I considered whether they were worth dealing with and found that I was unwilling to give the game the benefit of the doubt. I put it down and haven’t looked back.

#gaming #video games #reward design #ty the tasmanian tiger #challenge #punishment

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Unrewarding Rewards

Here’s another pet peeve: when games forget that something is positioned as a reward and get stingy with it.

I was thinking of this recently because of Hyrule Warriors. Similar to Fire Emblem Warriors, it has a system where you can scan up to five different amiibo per day and for each one get a semi-random reward of in-game currency, materials, or a weapon. Characters from the game’s actual franchise get special treatment, but any old amiibo will give you something.

Currency is generally the worst reward in my opinion, as that’s the easiest resource to farm in-game. You can get different amounts of it, though, and 50,000 rupees is nothing to sneeze at. Unfortunately, one of the possible rewards - which I have gotten several times - is one rupee.

I normally have about one million rupees on hand. One rupee is basically worthless. It would almost be less insulting and frustrating if you got nothing at all.

This might be a reasonable outcome if everyone just got five pulls on this slot machine every day. I think I’d still rather balance the rewards so the expected earnings were the same but there weren’t any duds like this, even though you’d still probably get something decent from five pulls. An engagement reward shouldn’t be insulting.

But pulls aren’t free. They are a reward for buying amiibo and an attempt to add value to them as a platform. (Even if Nintendo has largely abandoned this.) I bought a figurine expecting to be able to use it in a variety of games, I go to the effort to fire up the game for the day, go to the amiibo menu, and physically pick up my amiibo and put it on the controller - and the game blows me a one rupee raspberry in response.

I’m glad they figured out this was a bad idea. This “reward” was dropped from Fire Emblem Warriors, and the smallest amount of currency you can get from an amiibo there is five hundred.

#gaming #video games #hyrule warriors #amiibo #fire emblem warriors #reward design

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The Pickups are a Put-On

As I mentioned a bit ago, when you defeat enemies in Hyrule Warriors dropped rupees get automatically collected but dropped materials and weapons become pickups that just sit there unless you go collect them.

These items are crucial to long-term character advancement, so I’ve been carefully getting all the drops as I play, which has had a significant detrimental effect on my experience. Musou games are about moving quickly; you really should move on from an enemy the moment it’s defeated. It’s detrimental (and unfun) to wait around for it to have its death animation and drop its pickup and go collect it - especially if your last attack happened to have significant knockback. Worse, you can continue to juggle them unintentionally after they’re already dead, which just delays the animation further. And the worst are enemies who have scripted things they say when they die, because they’ll just sit there defeated on the field until the message queue clears and they can say their line, and then drop their pickup. And the cherry on top is when these delays cause you to miss an optional objective or an A-rank by mere seconds.

Well, it turns out the pickups are a lie. You can ignore them completely. You still get the dropped items automatically when you clear the mission.

I have no idea why they still have enemies drop these items and leave them on the field and play an item pick-up sound and display a “Material received!” message when you pick them up. It really makes it seem like you have to collect them manually, which misleads the player into a much less fun way to play the game.

Really glad they fixed this for Fire Emblem Warriors and had the dropped items immediately vanish and display their collection message.

#gaming #video games #hyrule warriors #game design

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It’s not “difficulty”; it’s “focus”

Much of the confusion in the difficulty debate is because we often talk about difficulty when what we really care about is focus.

Take Pathologic 2. It’s a game about trying to survive and solve mysteries in a plague-ridden town. It’s got a strong narrative and prominent survival mechanics. The reviews I’ve seen lament how much the latter gets in the way of the former. From Brendan Caldwell’s review:

There are a bunch of meters: stamina, hunger, thirst, health, exhaustion, immunity. . . . On paper, you should be exploring the town, figuring things out, piecing this unearthly story together. But most of your time is spent trading bits of old brain and rusty scissors for a tin of food just to keep a meter down. It takes over everything, an unwelcome distraction from the intrigue of murder cases and bizarre architecture of the town’s stranger buildings.

After receiving a lot of feedback to this effect, developer Ice-Pick Lodge is adding a “difficulty slider”. Their announcement post is worth reading in its entirety, but the takeaway is “[W]e’d rather give people a tweaked experience than none at all.”

That’s great, and I applaud Ice-Pick for responding in this way. But I also find myself wondering - is this really about difficulty? Here’s another quote from Brendan Caldwell’s review:

If the intent here is to follow a Soulsian “hard is good” philosophy and apply it to the survival genre, this is misplaced. Souls games are about reaction, movement, and practice. You can’t practice finding a piece of bread. If the intent is only to keep the player feeling oppressed, strapped for time, exhausted, hungry and weary, well, that doesn’t mean I won’t also resent having to spend so much time doing the most boring species of meter-management in what could have been a captivating mystery.

Caldwell doesn’t mind that the game is hard or even that it’s dark - he minds that he has to devote so much time and attention to the least interesting parts of it. The bits that aren’t this game’s unique selling point, the bits that have been done many times in many games.

Ice-Pick haven’t said exactly what their new slider will do, but in practice for players like Caldwell it won’t really be a difficulty slider so much as a mechanical focus slider. Turning down a game’s ‘difficulty’ rarely means that characters now speak in Basic English and complex moral decisions get replaced with clear-cut black and white choices. What it does mean is that the survival mechanics (or in most games, combat systems) are less demanding and you can pay them less attention.

The difficulty debate (and certainly any response of the “you cheated not only the game, but yourself” variety) often misses that there are multiple different reasons to play most games. In addition to skill levels, physical capabilities, and amounts of free time, people differ in their interests. When someone is drawn to a game’s world, art, characters, story, etc., and finds that mechanical systems are getting in the way of what they came for, it’s natural to want to adjust the game’s focus to reduce those obstacles. Because of the misleading way these settings are often labeled, that means they are “playing on Easy.” But they aren’t here for the combat, or for the survival mechanics, or whatever. Mastering it is of no interest to them and is not worth their time. Like Peter Gibbons, it’s not that they’re lazy; it’s that they just don’t care about this particular source of difficulty. They’re trying to focus on what actually appeals to them and what actually creates value for them.

#gaming #video games #pathologic 2 #difficulty #easy mode

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No Amiibo in Super Mario Maker 2

It always frustrates me to see Nintendo take a good idea, execute it half-heartedly, and then abandon it. Amiibo have been on the decline for some time now, but the latest nail in the coffin is that Super Mario Maker 2 apparently won’t support them.

The original Super Mario Maker was a shining example of good use of nearly every amiibo. Omitting that from the sequel is very much a vote of no confidence in amiibo, and mostly leaves Smash propping them up. Which I suppose isn’t surprising - Smash is already propping up Miis as well, and seems to be the only Nintendo franchise that has any idea how to be an actual platform.

#gaming #video games #nintendo #amiibo #super mario maker 2 #super smash bros ultimate

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Nintendo eShop Tries to Prevent Buyer’s Remorse

I just noticed that when you look at a game listing in Nintendo’s eShop, in either the website or the Switch store, if you already own the game it doesn’t show you the current price.

I just bought Thumper since it’s on sale for five bucks in North America, and if I view the listing in an incognito window, it shows as twenty bucks marked down to five. Viewed while logged in to my Nintendo account, it shows as twenty bucks. Viewed on my Switch, it doesn’t show a price at all.

I assume this is to prevent the frustration of buying something and then immediately seeing it on sale for less than you paid, and possibly related customer complaints/requests-for-belated-discounts. I’m curious if they have any numbers to suggest it’s worthwhile for that purpose, but naively it seems misguided.

First, I’m very skeptical that it even works. When you look at the list of what games are currently on sale, that doesn’t filter out games you already own. I check that list far more often than I look at individual listings of games I already own, and many times I’ve seen games for which I paid more.

Second, I’m not generally a fan of hiding this kind of information from the customer - and the website goes one step farther and presents inaccurate information. This could easily backfire - suppose I’m telling my friend that Thumper is cool so they ask how much it is, and I tell them it’s twenty bucks because that’s the price I see, and that’s above their threshold when the actual sale price isn’t? I doubt this happens a lot but I’d expect it happens more often than someone is upset to learn that the game they just bought is on sale now not from checking the list of current sales but from going to that game’s individual listing.

This just feels like a weird strategy to me, and I doubt the benefits outweigh the dishonesty.

#gaming #video games #nintendo #nintendo swtich #nintendo eshop

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Staggered DLC Releases Punish Your Best Customers

It’s been announced that Dragon Quest Builders 2 will have four DLC packs releasing over three weeks, so it seems like a good time to complain about this approach to DLC.

Release window sales are very important for triple-A games. Pre-orders are risky since they commit to a purchase before in-depth reviews are out, but they’re really helpful for the developer/publisher - people who pre-order are the best possible customers with the highest loyalty and investment, and can generate valuable organic marketing during the release window if they start playing the game right away and hype it up on social media. It’s absolutely in the interests of the developer/publisher to encourage and reward these customers.

As mentioned in my very first Tumblr post, DQB2 is my most anticipated game for 2019. I’ve had it pre-ordered since February. It comes out on July 12. Fully two weeks later come two DLC packs - one free, one paid. A week after that comes another paid DLC pack, and another week after that comes the final paid DLC pack.

Even if I buy all the DLC (which, to be clear, most of which is already out in Japan, with the last pack set to get a release date today) I won’t have a complete game until four weeks after launch. It’s not a great way to encourage and reward early adopters.

I recognize that often DLC is developed after the initial release of a game and can’t possibly be released alongside the main game. That seems to have been the case with DQB2 in Japan. But several times I’ve seen a game get localized from Japan well after all the DLC is available in Japan, including when that DLC is cosmetic and should be very quick and easy to localize, and still get a staggered DLC release schedule in other territories.

My assumption is that the intent is to extend the launch window, getting the game more attention for longer by putting out new content for it on a weekly basis for a while. But the result is that the best customers get a worse experience. (Relatedly, I assume the purpose of putting out free DLC instead of putting the same content in a more-convenient title update is to get people looking at the store where they might buy paid DLC.)

I feel like there’s a reasonable compromise available here - when there’s a season pass, it’s generally available before the DLC rolls out. Indeed, there’s one for DQB2 that can even be pre-ordered before the game launches. In cases like this where it’s feasible to make all the DLC content available at launch, why not do so via the season pass so early adopters get everything right away? The individual DLC packs could still be released piecemeal over time to extend the launch window, but this way early adopters are rewarded instead of punished.

If DQB2 did this, I would absolutely buy the season pass along with my pre-order. As is, I expect to get through a large chunk of the game before the DLC is even available, so when it does come out I’ll be much less motivated to pick it up.

#gaming #video games #dlc #dragon quest builders 2