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.


City of Friends

Given how important the social aspect is to MMORPGs, I’m always confused by design choices that get in the way of making friends and playing together. I wrote about how City of Heroes let teammates target through the tank, which makes teamwork smoother than in later games like World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV. This is just one of several such mechanics present in CoH that I’ve been shocked to find missing from later MMORPGs.


Target Through the Tank

In MMORPGs that use the “holy trinity” of tank/DPS/heals, it’s generally really important that other party members target the enemy the tank is currently targeting. Both because it’s beneficial to burn down individual enemies quickly to remove them as threats and also because attacking enemies that aren’t the tank’s focus risks pulling them off the tank, which can easily lead to party wipes in tough battles.

There are often in-game aides to make this easier. In Final Fantasy XIV (and as I recall, World of Warcraft, and probably most similar MMOs) the party leader can ‘mark’ enemies with icons visible to other party members to indicate a planned targeting order. And it’s generally possible to see what your current target is targeting, so you can always click your tank in the party roster to target them, and then click to their target to target that.

But the marks won’t help if the plan goes to hell, and having to constantly target back to the tank to see what they’re targeting adds a lot of finicky steps and opportunity for error - what if they switch targets immediately after you switch to their target? It’s really easy for a situation that goes wrong to quickly go more wrong as DPSers accidentally pull aggro off the tank and the healer can’t keep up. These tools are not enough - and in fact, some quick internet searching on the topic turns up discussions for several MMOs including both FFXIV and WoW on how to set up macros or add-ons to make it easier to consistently target what the tank is targeting. It’s clear that this is a persistent need in basically every MMO of this kind that has yet to be solved in-game.

…except that it was fully, simply, and intuitively solved before any of these games came out.

City of Heroes came out in April 2004, several months before WoW and several years before FFXIV. And in CoH, if you use an attack ability while targeting a party member, instead of failing with an “invalid target” message, the attack will trigger against the party member’s target. All you have to do to keep targeting the enemy the tank is targeting, no matter how often they switch, is to just keep the tank as your target. That’s it.

I don’t know if City of Heroes was the first to do this, but it definitely should not have been the last. I don’t know why every MMO since hasn’t stolen this.

I suppose one could argue that doing so would “dumb down” the game, as target management is an actual skill and part of the challenge of tough encounters. To which I’d respond that what’s hard about a game should also be what’s interesting about it. The interesting part of target management is primarily a tactical challenge, not an action one, and is mostly the tank’s responsibility. Once the tank has decided which enemy should be the group’s current target, it is not an interesting challenge to have the other party members scramble through several clicks to change over to that target. Furthermore, it’s not something players can practice on their own in a safe space - it only really comes up in high-pressure group situations, where one person messing up can create a frustrating experience for several players. Given how heavily these games tend to incentivize teaming up, even with strangers, it’s incoherent design to then not smooth over these kinds of coordination problems as much as possible.

Letting players target through the tank, as CoH did, keeps the actual tactics of combat just as interesting but streamlines away a fiddly source of uninteresting challenge in a way that makes it less frustrating to play with strangers. It’s an obvious win. Every MMORPG should do this.


I’d Buy That for a Dollar

One of the most interesting major challenges in the games industry right now - especially for indies - is discoverability. With a constant deluge of new releases, there’s a serious signal-to-noise problem. How do we connect games people want to play with the people who want to play them? How do we help players who can’t find games that appeal to them, even though those games are in fact out there? How do we stop games from languishing in obscurity when they’d be bought and enjoyed by many, if the many only knew about the game in the first place?

As much as I enjoy the opportunity to pick up games I’m curious about for a buck or less, it’s a clear sign of how broken the discoverability is on the Nintendo Switch eShop that the best way to get people to notice your game is to heavily discount it. I’d rather be able to find games I’ll love and spend more on them, to truly support their creators and cast an economic vote for More Like This.


The trick is, when you're hooked on a game, you...

The trick is, when you’re hooked on a game, you need to harness that for good. For example, I bought a mini-elliptical to exercise at my desk. It sat in its box for a few days, and then I told myself I couldn’t play Final Fantasy XIV unless I was on the elliptical. No grinding in the game unless I was grinding in real life.

Less than an hour after that, I had the elliptical fully assembled and was stepping on it while questing through Eorzea.

My daily step count has been much higher since then.


Gaze Sometimes Into the Abyss, Lest You Forget it is There

I still remember how I lost myself in World of Warcraft.

I remember looking up from my laptop screen and realizing I hadn’t left my apartment in over a week. I’d just—gotten up in the morning, plunked down on my futon, played WoW all day, and gone to bed, again and again and again.

I wasn’t addicted, really. What I was was complacent. My life was in a darker place then, with decaying friendships and uncertain employment prospects. I didn’t feel like I was doing anything real. And it all seemed so scary and risky - especially after some events in my personal life had shattered what I’d thought was my closest friendship and my poor reaction to those events had gotten me fired from the best job I’d ever had. Why put myself back out there? Why work on building new relationships and finding a job when I could just end up burned again?

I filled the gaps with WoW instead, and it was more than happy to oblige. WoW was specifically and masterfully designed to provide the illusion of progress, the illusion of working together toward a shared goal. It sated my appetite but left me empty, giving me everything I wanted and nothing I needed.

I still don’t know if WoW was there for me when I sought comfort, or if it took advantage of me when I was vulnerable. Probably a little of both. Regardless, when I looked up from that screen and saw what I’d become, what I’d chosen to be, it sickened me and I canceled my subscription.

It’s been several years and my life has changed a lot since then. But I still remember the darkness. And this is why playing Final Fantasy XIV today leaves me with an occasional feeling of vertigo.

It’s like I’ve returned to hike a trail cut into the side of a mountain. It’s a lovely walk, especially with friends, but all I have to do is turn my head and I can see that just a few steps off the trail is a great yawning abyss.

I don’t think I’m going to fall into it again. I’m stronger now, more sure-footed, with more anchors to keep me on the path. But it’s still there, it’s always there, and to pretend otherwise would be to invite disaster.


Senran Kagura Peach Bawl

The latest Senran Kagura game, Senran Kagura Peach Ball, is a light-hearted comedic out-of-genre spin-off (it’s a pinball game where you have to restore the girls who’ve accidentally been partially transformed into animals by putting them on a pinball table and smacking them with the ball). So was Senran Kagura Bon Appétit! (Hanzō gets hungry and offers a wish-granting ninja scroll as reward for a cooking competition played as a rhythm game) so comparisons are inevitable.

Both games have the standard Senran Kagura trappings like the dressing room but none of the standard brawling - there’s only the out-of-genre gameplay which is solid but not spectacular. You have to enjoy both that genre and the Senran Kagura brand of fanservice and humor to enjoy the game. I like rhythm games and not pinball; I liked Bon Appétit! and didn’t get into Peach Ball. But Peach Ball actually left me outright sad and I think it’s because of the health of the franchise now versus when Bon Appétit! came out.

Recent Senran Kagura games have felt a bit slim for their price tag, and the comparison between Peach Ball and Bon Appétit! puts that in sharp relief - the more recent game has less content and does less to develop its characters.

Bon Appétit! has all twenty-two girls who were established by that point in the series, each with a unique theme song and set of themed dishes to cook which are the game’s levels. Story mode has a short campaign for each of the twenty-two girls based on why they want to win the competition (and in most cases, what they’d use the ninja scroll to wish for).

Peach Ball has only five characters - the same ones from Reflexions. (Plus Haruka to frame the plot.) The five girls each get… a unique animal transformation costume. And the game’s levels consist of only two similar pinball tables.

But more than that, Bon Appétit! came at a time when Senran Kagura was in a position of strength. It was right after Shinovi Versus had come out - a game which advanced and expanded the series’s story and world, and which was the first to get a physical release in the US. Bon Appétit! thus felt like a fun extra bonus for a healthy franchise (the cross-buy DLC with Shinovi Versus helped that even more). It was okay that it didn’t advance the story; there was good reason to have confidence that would happen in the mainline games. It was just a fun way to spend more time with the characters and see them in a different light - and whichever one was your favorite, she was in there.

Peach Ball came out with Senran Kagura in a much iffier position. The past few games have been in a narrative stasis with no real progress in plot or character development, and though many of them add more girls their worlds have been feeling smaller. The next game, 7even, is supposed to finally move things forward, but has run into problems mid-development with changes in what platforms are willing to publish and studio director Kenichiro Takaki announcing his departure. It’s hard to know what to expect, and that makes it harder to view Peach Ball as an extra bonus to a healthy franchise. It’s barely even a way to spend more time with your favorite characters - it’s only got a fraction of the cast and shines hardly any new light on them. It’s a reminder of what threatens to become the new normal: unambitious, exploitative games with shallow characters and absurd plots that provide titillation and middling gameplay without a foundation of moral and emotional depth.


Dragon Quest Builders shouldn’t block free play with the story

One thing that both Dragon Quest Builders games are weird about is the relationship between the story campaign and the free mode.

In DQB1, you can access the free mode (“Terra Incognita”) right away, but many recipes and resources are locked behind completion of the respective chapters of the story campaign. Since the entire point of Terra Incognita is to build freely, this makes the early access a pointless compromise since you have to play through the entire story to unlock everything.

In DQB2, things are more unified and the free mode (“Buildertopia”) is not actually separate from the story mode - instead, you have to complete the story before you can access it. Then the islands where you can build freely (and engage in multiplayer!) become available as destinations.

This feels like needless audience-narrowing to me. Some number of players are interested in the story and some number of players are interested in free play, and these groups overlap but they aren’t identical. I’m here for the story and not the free play (the entire reason I play DQB instead of Minecraft or Terraria or whatever is the context provided by the story and characters) so the games do work for me, as I can finish the story and then just stop. And players who want both, specifically in this order, are of course well-served. But players who don’t care about the story and just want to build freely in a Dragon Quest world are still obliged to play through what amounts to a full-length RPG before they can get what they want. This isn’t going to be worth it for many such players, and they won’t buy the game.

In DQB2 it’s even worse, since the Buildertopias feature the series’s only actual multiplayer so far. Want to play DQB2 with your friends? I hope you all want to play through the 45+ hour-long story first! (Can you imagine if Call of Duty made players finish a campaign that long before it let them online? Or if Smash made you finish World of Light first?) This can get in the way even if you do want to play the story - I played on PS4 and then found out a friend had the game on Switch, and if I could have jumped straight in to multiplayer I might have double-dipped so we could play together. But I’m not willing to pay full price for the game again and put that much time into repeating content again. And can you imagine how frustrating it would be to lose your save (which can happen for many reasons that are not the player’s fault) and then not be able to go play with your friends anymore unless you replayed the entire story?

Maybe there’s something I’m missing, but I just don’t see a compelling reason to constrain the gameplay this much when the styles are so different. In my view, the player should have full access to free play with all recipes and materials attainable in that mode, without ever having to start the campaign. I personally wouldn’t use this, but from comments I’ve read online, plenty of players would, and this seems like an easy way to increase the game’s audience without sacrificing anything.


Final Fantasy XIV and the Final Fantasy Identity

I’ve started the free trial of Final Fantasy XIV because I hear that it has somehow become the best MMORPG and I miss playing as a healer (though since I’m soloing to learn the game I’m starting with a different class). And I keep thinking about my claim that Dragon Quest has held on to its core identity more than Final Fantasy has.

I’ve dipped in and out of both Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest over the years, but while every single Dragon Quest game (including other-genre spin-offs like Heroes and Builders) is instantly recognizable to me as Dragon Quest, I wouldn’t know FFXIV is Final Fantasy if not for the title. (Aside from it having Chocobos and Moogles in it, though the Moogles are on, like, what, their third drastic redesign?)

Like, I picked the ranged magic DPS class to start, and I’ve got ice, fire, and lightning spells. Why is this class called “Thaumaturge” and not “Black Mage”? Why is its lore about funeral rites? Why have the humanoid races been renamed again? Why are all the early enemies monsters I’ve never seen before?

This is all surface-level stuff, but it’s the player’s first impressions of the game and it contributes to a general feeling of unfamiliarity that’s less welcoming than what Dragon Quest provides.

I am enjoying FFXIV and intend to keep playing for now. But I’m also curious about the Dragon Quest MMORPG and I really wish that had been localized.


The Platform is the Playstyle

I’ve now tried two console adaptations of 2.5D brawlers that were originally on the 3DS: Senran Kagura Burst Re:Newal, a PS4/PC remake of 3DS title Senran Kagura Burst, and Code of Princess EX, an enhanced Switch port of 3DS title Code of Princess. Despite being from different developers, some commonalities immediately stand out that seem likely to be due to their shared origins.

  1. Levels, particularly early ones, are very short - the first ones are on the order of a minute or two.
  2. Longevity is provided through level grinding and recombining existing content (clear every level with every character!).

This sort of setup makes sense for a handheld that might be unable to hold large or complex levels in memory, might not have storage for lot of unique content, and might be played for just a few minutes at a time on a train or whatever. It makes less sense on a more-powerful home console where the player is more likely to be looking for an experience to sink their teeth into. The first time I tried Code of Princess EX, I actually put it down and played something else because I was tired of navigating menus every couple of minutes just to get into the next level.

It’s easy to forget how much the platform on which a game is released can change the design constraints and best practices for that game. (Like a game design subset of “the medium is the message”.) This is why it’s particularly interesting that PC and consoles have been becoming more similar for years, and now the Switch is bridging the gap to handhelds - while there are many upsides, we should also expect this to reduce the variety of game experiences on offer.


A Few Tips for Dragon Quest Builders 2

There are several useful things to know in Dragon Quest Builders 2 that the game doesn’t really hint at so you wouldn’t even know to try to look them up. I’ve collected a few that I stumbled on here. I expect there are more.

Apart from the first one, they are mostly for the late-game or post-game so they include some structural/mechanical spoilers. Consider yourself warned.