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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Completionists and Wanderers

There are a lot of ways players differ, but one frame I’ve been thinking about a lot is the spectrum from being what you might call a “completionist” to a “wanderer.”

Completionists are goal-focused. They want to understand a game’s rules, master its mechanics, and conquer its objectives. They don’t want to miss anything.

Wanderers prefer to explore and experiment. They like surprises and like to feel like a game’s world is organic and huge - perhaps bigger than can ever be fully understood.

Most players are somewhere in between. I personally am pretty far on the completionist side. While there certainly are games that can appeal to players regardless of their position on the spectrum, many design elements will hit players differently - the point where “good design” for wanderers can be “bad design” for completionists and vice versa.

For example, I’ve seen a lot of people complain about the fact that in open-world games in the Ubisoft formula, you end up with a huge checklist of map icons instead of a world to explore. These people tend to also celebrate the approach used by The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild which doesn’t give you much in the way of automatic icons, instead tasking you with looking through binoculars and marking points of interest yourself. To wanderers, the latter feels more like actual exploring and is far more satisfying. To completionists, it can be nerve-wracking - it puts all the pressure on the player to notice and keep track of everything (I’ve even seen reviews suggest playing with a notebook and maintaining a to-do list) lest they miss something.

This can pose a challenge when designing games for large audiences and there aren’t always viable compromises. I find that what helps me a lot is having some kind of safety net: if there’s an unobtrusive checklist tucked away in a menu or something, such that I know I can always check in on it and be sure I’m not missing any objectives or sidequests, then the pressure is off and I can stop worrying and can actually enjoy exploring. But I’ve also seen people (who are presumably far on the “wanderer” side of the spectrum) complain that the mere presence of checklist features, even optionally, can ruin the feeling of free exploration.

One of the absolute best implementations of a completionist safety net I’ve ever seen comes from inFAMOUS 2. Both of the first two inFAMOUS games feature hundreds of collectible “blast shards” scattered across the games’ respective cities. Collecting them increases how much energy you can store, but you don’t need all of them in order to max out. But there is a trophy for finding them all. And unless you keep careful track as you play, if you find yourself with 349/350 shards in the endgame you have no recourse but to scour the entire city for that last damn shard. Not a big deal to wanderers, but potentially infuriating for completionists.

inFAMOUS 2 had a similar setup, but with a simple addition - a late-game optional upgrade that let your map radar always point you in the direction of the nearest shard. It’s such a minor change and it doesn’t disrupt the game’s balance, but it’s a lifesaver if you find yourself in the position of missing one or two shards at the end. Knowing this is there, you don’t have to worry about keeping track of the shards you do collect. You can just play the damn game.

And that, I think, is key to the difference between wanderers and completionists. To a wanderer, a completionist might seem like someone who should just relax and enjoy the game. But the completionist might be wishing they could do exactly that! They don’t choose to have anxiety about missing content. And a couple of simple accommodations can usually cut out that anxiety and let the completionist enjoy the game just as much as the wanderer.

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Fickle Neighbors

I appreciate the increased control Animal Crossing: New Horizons gives you over building placement - in New Leaf, I once had a new villager move in right in front of the plot I’d designated for the coffee house, nearly blocking the door, and it was frustrating that I couldn’t do anything about that.

But it seems bizarre to me the way the game still gives you almost no control about who moves out of your town. There are (largely-hidden) friendship levels with the villagers, but they don’t matter for this - periodically, a villager will ask you if they should move out, but which villager does so is random and cannot be influenced by the player.

In New Leaf, I consistently favored the villagers I liked and ignored the ones I didn’t, and the only villagers who ever suggested moving out were the ones I’d been favoring. Eventually, after a week or two away from the game I found that my favorite villager had moved away, and that’s when I stopped playing.

So far I’ve been playing New Horizons every day, so I don’t have a sense of how much of a risk this is here, but the first villager to ask about moving out was again my favorite one, which does not bode well.

It’s frustrating and I don’t understand it. It seems like it would only improve the simulation as well as the player’s enjoyment to let them influence who stays and who leaves. I’d like to be able to give presents to and do favors for particular villagers and then be reasonably confident I can safely put the game down for a while if I need to without losing my favorite neighbors. Surely it makes sense for villagers to want to stick around if they are good friends with the player?

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Crafting a Regression

Not long ago, I wrote that I hoped that Animal Crossing: New Horizons‘s crafting mechanics might mean a less random progression in available furniture, and this has turned out to be only a little bit true. You quickly get access to a couple of basic furniture sets based on wood and iron but that’s as far as it goes before becoming random again - because the crafting recipes themselves are doled out mostly at random. So you still can’t really plan a particular aesthetic or take steps toward decorating your house that way.

Perhaps the most annoying example of this I’ve seen so far is the ironwood kitchenette. I’m decorating a kitchen now, I really want to use this particular piece of furniture, and I have the recipe for it. But I can’t make it because it requires two other pieces of ironwood furniture for which I don’t have the recipes - and I am far from being the only person in this situation. All we can do, apart from begging strangers on the internet for trades, is hope we randomly receive those other needed recipes.

I don’t know the reasoning behind this decision. This is now worse than the old random distribution - it’s random distribution with randomly distributed prerequisites. In the old games, I could at least just find a kitchenette without also first needing to find two other specific pieces of furniture before I could use it.

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Dear Animal Crossing villagers,...

Dear Animal Crossing villagers,

When I take the camera out, STAY WHERE YOU ARE. I want to take a picture of you being adorable because you are singing by the pond or sitting under a tree or resting on the hammock I put next to the bonfire. What I do not want is to spend a few seconds lining up the shot only for you to get up and walk behind a building. STOP DOING THAT.

Your pal,
The Resident Representative

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DualSense is a Privacy Risk

Sony have announced the PlayStation 5 controller - rather than being called the Dualshock 5, it will be the DualSense. An apt name, considering its main new feature is “a built-in microphone array.”

The responses I’m seeing to this so far are universally positive. I guess people like the idea of not needing a headset for voice chat. I’m much less optimistic about this - to be fair, I don’t do much voice chat in console games, so it wouldn’t matter much to me as a convenience feature, but I also find it hard to imagine it working well. How would a microphone in the controller pick up voice while not also picking up the TV, the button presses, and ambient noises?

But let’s assume Sony has somehow solved those issues and this actually works well as a replacement for a cheap headset like the one bundled in with the PS4. I still don’t want it. The nice thing about a headset is that you decide when to have an active microphone. You decide when it’s plugged in or disconnected, when it’s turned on or off. A microphone built into the controller is just always there and you don’t have control over it.

In an era where we have legitimate concerns about being spied on by our phones, home assistants, and other smart devices, we don’t need to worry that our game consoles have joined the club.

Thankfully, the reports so far indicate that the DualShock 4 will be compatible with the PS5. I’ll continue to use mine. I won’t use a DualSense unless there’s a way to physically disable the microphone.

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Super Mario Chess Set

So, there’s a Super Mario chess set that’s been out since 2009. These are the pieces:

Image of Super Mario chess set pieces described below.

On the hero side we have Mario as the king, Luigi as the queen, Princesses Peach and Daisy as the bishops, Yoshis as the knights, Toads as the rooks, and coins as the pawns. Coins?

On the villain side we have Bowser as the king, Bowser Jr. as the queen, Magikoopas as the bishops, Birdos as the knights, Goombas as the rooks, and green shells as the pawns. Shells?

I look at this setup and am immediately disappointed. Surely we can do better than having uninteresting inanimate pawns? But I’m actually having trouble figuring out a better setup.

See, this does appear to be following some valuable constraints. For one, there’s no characters from related sub-franchises involved - characters like Donkey Kong or Isabelle or an Inkling who make sense in Smash Bros or Mario Kart but aren’t primarily Mario characters. For another, only characters who have sometimes been portrayed as a race rather than an individual (Yoshi, Toad) may be doubled-up.

I’m not sure how to avoid uninteresting pawns while keeping those constraints satisfied, having all the pieces be somewhat intuitive, sticking to the hero/villain divide, and only using important/recurring characters.

Like, I’d definitely argue that Toads are frequently portrayed as hapless villagers and would make perfect sense as pawns. But then who should the rooks be? Rosalina and Pauline are both reasonable adds, but keeping track of which of the ladies in dresses are bishops and which are rooks could be confusing. Poochy is a natural rook, but he’s from a sub-franchise. There’s Toadette, but then keeping track of rooks versus pawns gets confusing.

The villain side doesn’t really have this problem. You could easily make Goombas the pawns and Koopa Troopas the rooks, for example. There are so many enemy types to choose from (I might vote for Boos over Magikoopas for bishops, for example). But if the hero side has inanimate pawns, it seems wrong for the villains to have living ones. Maybe the green shells are their pawns because the coins are the hero pawns.

I can’t come up with a solution I’m happy with. How would you fix this chess set?

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#gaming #Super Mario #chess set #video games

Tags: Thought

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Nook Miles+ and Binge-Playing

Animal Crossing games have always had a soft limit on how much you could do in a single day. Fossils only show up once a day, trees can only be shaken once a day, flowers can only be watered once a day, and so on - plus many event triggers (such as house expansions) have built-in overnight delays, so even once you hit one of these goals you can’t move forward past it until the next day.

You always could keep playing, catching more bugs and fish and picking up more shells, but at that point you’re mostly farming Bells. It’s an option, but it’s not where the game’s best experiences lie and I don’t think it’s what the designers really want the player to do. It’s possible because none of the mechanics forbid it but they don’t particularly reward or encourage it either.

Because of this, I’ve always gotten the impression that Animal Crossing wants to be played a little every day. You can choose to binge it and try to play as efficiently as possible and rush the various objectives, but the game neither encourages nor supports this approach. It’s designed to be less fun for players who come at it like that. It’s designed to slow you down. It wants to be a Zen garden, not a checklist.

New Horizons adds a fascinating feature that runs somewhat counter to this - the Nook Miles+ program that comes pretty early in the story progression. At all times, you have five mini-quests active that reward Nook Miles (a secondary currency alongside Bells) when completed and instantly replace themselves with another objective. These are things like catching five bugs (or five fish, or one specific bug or fish), spending Bells, selling items, crafting items, tending flowers, and so on - things that are very much in the “things you were probably going to do anyway” vein and often things that also earn you Bells along the way.

What this means is that even once you’ve done all the significant things you can do in a given day, you constantly have a short checklist of directed activities. You always have goals to accomplish for rewards. In some ways, it feels like a very non-Animal Crossing concession to players who want to binge and clear checklists. You can keep playing and knocking out more and more goals.

But at least in the early game, it seems to be less rewarding than it first appears. At the very beginning, Nook Miles are incredibly valuable - they’re how you repay your first debt and progress the game to unlock more mechanics and activities, and they can be spent on some absolutely vital purchases like an increase to your inventory size and a tool quick-select ring. Once you get through those things, though, there’s much less to do with your miles, at least in the early game. They still have some use and value, but at this point I have tens of thousands of miles just sitting around so it’s hard to find the Nook Miles+ objectives particularly compelling. I’m back to feeling like the game wants me to put it down until tomorrow.

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Mandatory Backtracking

Some games have optional backtracking - letting you return to earlier areas or content for various reasons. Others have structural backtracking - in Metroidvanias, the player often encounters impassable obstacles to which they’ll need to return later once they have the ability to get past them. (How obnoxious this is varies considerably with how good the map is and how generous the fast travel is, but that’s another post.)

But there are also games where backtracking isn’t an inherent part of the game’s structure or an opportunity to recontextualize earlier content. Instead, it’s an apparently-arbitrary requirement that the player repeat mostly-identical content, seemingly as filler or an attempt to increase replayability. This is what I call mandatory backtracking, and it’s one of my game design pet peeves.

I recently played LEGO City Undercover, which has tons of mandatory backtracking in a way that I get the impression is typical for Traveller’s Tales’ LEGO games. You gain new abilities as you progress through the story missions, and every mission has collectibles you can’t possibly get your first time through because they require an ability you don’t have yet. Most of the missions have collectibles that require an ability you get at the very end of the final story mission. So to fully complete the story missions, you have to play them all at least twice.

To me, this is annoying - whenever I see one of these collectibles in a mission, it feels like I am being taunted. And it smacks of insecure design - my instinct is that if the mission is fun enough to play twice, I’ll play it twice; if it’s not, I resent being forced to do so if I want the collectible.

LEGO City Undercover also has an open-world hub area to explore, which is chock full of goodies to find - many of which require various abilities, including the one you get at the very end of the story. At first I had a great time casually exploring the city, finding collectibles and beating challenges, and heading into a story mission for a more directed experience only when I felt like it. But I kept running into collectibles I couldn’t get yet, which made me feel like I was being discouraged from exploring before advancing the story. I felt like I had to play story missions before I was in the mood for them, and that damaged the experience.

Worse, I’d sometimes find a trail to a collectible that would take me platforming across rooftops, using a couple of abilities along the way, and suddenly dead-end in an ability I didn’t have yet. You get abilities in a set order, so I don’t know why they didn’t just make sure that trails always started with the latest needed ability to complete them. Since they didn’t do that, I often had to just back out without getting the collectible, and when I later got the ability I needed it was extremely difficult to find where I’d needed it - because the trail actually started somewhere else with basic platforming or some other earlier ability and wasn’t marked in any way as incomplete. This made me feel like I was being outright punished for exploring, which made it much less relaxing and enjoyable to do.

In some ways, I feel like LEGO City Undercover doesn’t really start until it’s over. You aren’t fully free to find and complete everything until you have all the abilities, which you won’t until you finish the entire story. At which point you’ll have to replay the entire story and re-explore the entire world if you want to find everything. I can see where that would work out for kids, but I had a hard time getting in the right headspace to enjoy that. I eventually just powered through the remaining story missions, but then found that hunting down the collectibles no longer seemed appealing. It’s an extreme case of texture outlasting structure. If getting the collectibles is fun without the story, why force me to go through the story before I can get all the collectibles? And if it’s not, then why make sure that you can’t get all the collectibles until you’re done with the story?

But all together, this is a great example of a design choice that’s enjoyable for some players and unpleasant for others rather than being inherently good or bad. There have been a lot of LEGO games over the years, and my understanding is that they basically all do these kinds of things. I think they would have stopped by now if it weren’t a positive for their target audience. These games are largely designed for children, who enjoy repetition. It’s a much safer assumption that a child is going to want to replay the content anyway, and this means they can get new rewards for doing so.

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Games should never punish exploration.

Similar to my claim that what’s hard about a game should also be what’s interesting about it, this is a foundational design belief of mine that’s important enough I want to write about it but seems so obvious that it’s hard to know what I could even say about it.

Games should never punish exploration.

A player getting drawn into a the universe of a game, engaging deeply enough to want to explore off the beaten path and not just follow the narrative breadcrumbs and signposts? That’s a huge compliment that means the game is working. It should never be repaid with a slap on the wrist.

Games should not assume that a player exploring an area means they don’t know they can leave or have forgotten their goal and have an NPC repeatedly and patronizingly bark at them to move on.

Games should not have one-way doors or points of no return that are not clearly telegraphed. (And they definitely should not have unmarked plot triggers at the end of dungeons that teleport the player all the way back out of the dungeon.)

Games should not surprise the player with sudden deadly difficulty spikes in otherwise safe areas.

Games should not provide interesting-looking and apparently-reachable places that are actually out-of-bounds instant death traps.

Games should never punish exploration.

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#gaming #video games

Tags: Thought