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.

|

Literal and Figurative Walls in Dragon Quest Builders 2

I’ve been thinking a lot about the fact that you can’t have a fully-safe base in Dragon Quest Builders 2 while you’re doing story stuff. I noted before that this led me to rush the story bits, and got a comment saying “…I just stopped trying to make things look nice and tried to get things done faster I can get to building again”. So why does the game do this?

We don’t know the designers’ intent, but my theory is that this is about forcing a playstyle. (I actually wrote that article because I wanted to explain the concept so I could use it in this very conversation.) That article explains in more depth, but the basic idea is that a game’s designers notice that the game’s incentives are motivating players to behave in ways that don’t seem fun, but rather than change the incentive structure they simply block off or discourage the behavior they don’t want.

If this is what happened here, then presumably it went something like this: Random attacks were put in the first Dragon Quest Builders so that players would have to regularly defend their bases in order to create tension/pressure and leave the player feeling like an active protector. But in practice, a lot of players just built unbreakable defensive walls around their base, removing much of the tension and making it possible to almost completely ignore the random attacks. This also created a weird design constraint that made all bases look more alike, look less like they organically fit into the landscape, and have worse views of their surroundings.

They wanted to avoid this for Dragon Quest Builders 2. But instead of digging in to understand why players were building these walls and find ways to remove the need for the walls, they just made it so enemies could break through anything the player could build. They didn’t remove the motivation for using the strategy - they just made it so the strategy no longer worked. This meant that any player who had chosen to build the walls in the first game would probably still want to in the second game to solve the same problems, but now wouldn’t be able to solve those problems at all. It’s like the designers are saying, “Come on, you’ll have more fun if you fight enemies a lot!” and some of us frustrated players are left saying, “Did it occur to you that maybe I bought your building game because I wanted to build?”

Again, I don’t know that’s why this happened, but the outcome is the same regardless. Uninterrupted building time is positioned as a reward for completing story arcs - and in fact, once you finish the whole story you get the ability to craft an item that completely prevents monsters from spawning. So those of us who want to build uninterrupted used to be encouraged to build a wall; now we’re encouraged to rush the story instead.

For me, this makes the game worse. By far the biggest reason I enjoy the Dragon Quest Builders over something like Minecraft or Terraria is the context provided by the story and characters. That gives me a reason to build that isn’t really present in those other games. And once the story is finished, that reason mostly vanishes. The characters are still around, but they’re harder to stay invested in when they just cycle through a few lines of dialog and no longer have any goals or concerns.

In the first Dragon Quest Builders, one of my favorite things to do was to take a break from the action mid-chapter to redesign or improve my town. When I tried to do that in Dragon Quest Builders 2, it was an exercise in frustration as I was continually interrupted and often had to take extra time to perform repairs as well. So I stopped doing it and rushed the story - and then once I had uninterrupted building time, I no longer felt like there was a reason to improve the town. So I didn’t bother - and one of my favorite experiences in the game was just gone.

So what would it look like if the designers had instead modified the incentive structure so that players no longer felt encouraged to build walls? I can’t speak for every player, but for me I think the real problem is repairing. Repairing is time-consuming without being creative and to someone with my completionist/perfectionist/vaguely-OCD-like tendencies, the possibility of missing a couple blocks or items somewhere along the way (which absolutely happened in the first game) drives me batty. Attacks make me anxious because they create the possibility I’ll need to repair - if that were removed, they wouldn’t really bother me. (My evidence for this is a bit in Chapter 3 where the base gets attacked by enemies that can’t be kept out - once I realized they also couldn’t break anything, I stopped panicking when they showed up.)

In Dragon Quest Builders 2, villagers have the ability to build to a blueprint and to repair your base after story battles. If they could also repair after random battles, I think that would basically solve the problem for players like me. The attacks would still create tension and pressure and an opportunity to actively defend your base and people, but you wouldn’t be punished if you choose not to immediately drop what you’re doing and rush to handle it.

I’d definitely want to do some playtesting if I were actually in charge of a decision here, but my instinct is that this would be a better experience for everyone.

|

My Nintendo Selling Ads for Ice Cream

I’ve mostly become numb to the huge pile of wasted potential that is My Nintendo, but they’ve managed to surprise me today. The North American reward store is now selling advertisements for an ice cream store. They want you to spend platinum points to buy these.

The only reason I can imagine anyone buying these ads is because there’s basically nothing else to spend the points on and they expire obnoxiously quickly (in a loyalty program!).

It’s always frustrating to watch Nintendo let good ideas languish, but this is actually straight-up insulting. I almost want to just skip ahead to when they inevitably shut the program down.

|

Marvel’s Spider-Man: Game of the Three Years Edition

It’s not just patches that devalue physical media. Game of the Year (GOTY) bundles that include DLC via vouchers do it too.

Marvel’s Spider-Man was released by Insomniac nearly a year ago as of this writing, and it’s received a number of patches, free content updates adding new costumes and such, and three chapters of story DLC.

A Game of the Year edition bundling the DLC was announced a couple of days ago. But rather than re-press the discs with all the updated content present, it looks like it’s the same disc as always, along with a voucher for the DLC.

So anyone buying this “complete” game has to enter a code into the PlayStation Store and wait for the DLC to download. (I assume the updates as well; if they didn’t re-press the discs for the DLC I doubt they would have for the free updates.) They won’t be able to re-download any of this when the store’s not accessible.

And my favorite part? The cherry on top? There’s a tiny disclaimer in the bottom-right corner of the cover reading “DLC voucher expires 08/28/2022”.

The voucher expires after three years. There could certainly still be copies of this on the shelf then - this is the game used to sell the PS5’s performance, after all. Any copies of this bought after that point ARE JUST THE BASE GAME.

|

Dragon Quest Builders Sequel Wish List

After I played Dragon Quest Builders, I made a list of improvements I’d like to see in any then-unlikely-seeming sequel. Well, now I’ve played Dragon Quest Builders 2 and found it a textbook example of how to make a good sequel, with several ways it improved on the original. So I thought it’d be fun to go back to my ridiculous pie-in-the-sky I-want-a-pony pipe dreams and see how many came true.

Spoiler alert: it was almost all of them.

Here’s the list - my commentary will follow each item in italics.

|

Renewable Resources in Dragon Quest Builders 2

One of the small things about Dragon Quest Builders 2 that I really like is that Explorer’s Shores mean a lot of important resources are infinitely renewable.

It felt really good to unlock infinite wood and know I’d never have to commit deforestation again to be able to make what I wanted to.

And at one point in the Furrowfield chapter, I basically stole an entire hill from a remote section of the map in order to do some landscaping. As amusing as it was to feel like Carmen Sandiego, I felt bad for defacing the natural environs. Once the Explorer’s Shores were available, I could go steal all the earth I wanted and it would just come right back.

|

I am a completionist.

I am a completionist. Not everyone is. This means certain game design decisions affect me differently than they affect other players.

See, for example, my post about Smash Ultimate giving a unique spirit to people with Dragon Quest XI save data. The non-completionist sees this news and thinks something like, “Oh, that’s a cute little reward to remind me of this other game I enjoyed!” Meanwhile, I’ve been maintaining a complete spirit collection so I see this news and think, “Dammit, Smash, why are you giving me homework?”

My reaction isn’t invalid, but neither is the other one. The annoyance I feel at the news is a fact about me and not an objective quality of the game itself. At most, I could say the decision to distribute this spirit in this way is likely to annoy completionists (especially ones who, say, already bought DQXI on PS4 ages ago) and not that it is an inherently annoying decision. That’s a statement about audience, not just about game design.

My completionism affects how I feel about a lot of game design decisions, but I don’t always realize that’s what’s going on. I’ve fairly-well internalized that some players aren’t annoyed by the things that annoy me about certain achievements, for example, because it doesn’t bother them to decide not to get an achievement. But that’s mostly because there’s been a lot of discussion about achievements, so I’ve heard other viewpoints and it’s easier for me to avoid the typical-mind fallacy. There are other less-discussed areas where I’m pretty sure I wrote things I wouldn’t have written if I were not a completionist, without acknowledging that as a factor.

It’s important to separate what’s true about a game and what’s true about an audience, so I’m going to try to be better about this.

|

I like that Smash is a platform, but this is getting weird

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate has cross-promoted other Nintendo properties by adding new collectible spirits on several occasions already. I should be used to it.

They’ve now announced that if you play the Switch port of Dragon Quest XI or its demo, you’ll get a new Tockles spirit in Smash at some point. There’s not much info available yet, but I assume what this means is that at some point, Smash will get patched such that if it detects DQXI (or demo) save data on your Switch, it’ll gift you the spirit (similar to the Partner Pikachu and Partner Eevee spirits you got for having Pokémon: Let’s Go save data before).

This bugs me and I’ve been trying to figure out why. I think it’s because unlike the Spirit Board events that the game seems to have mostly settled on and which require you to defeat the relevant spirits in battle, this promotion requires you to download and perfunctorily engage with a different game. It’s not a new challenge with a corresponding reward - it’s just a hoop to jump through that’s basically equivalent to clicking on an ad. As a result, it feels much more manipulative and devalues the experience of trying out Dragon Quest XI. (I talked about the causes and effects of this in my article about engagement rewards, but the short version is that an external reward for a specific but easy action instead of for performing at a high level makes that action less intrinsically rewarding.) And as a Dragon Quest fan, that makes me sad.

It’s not even a good spirit! Fog immunity is easy to come by and not an ability you need to double-up on.

|

Don't Blame the Hoarder; Blame the Game

(Comic by Adam Ellis, as seen on his Instagram.)

So, like, I do chuckle at comedy about item hoarding, but it also bothers me a bit, because it’s often totally rational behavior by players who’ve been burned before.

Some games brutally punish players for not hoarding equipment, and it’s not always obvious right away what kind of game you’re playing. I don’t think I’m ever going to forget how betrayed I felt in Dragon Quest VIII after telling myself, “You know what? This time I’m not going to hoard things,” and then found out a while after selling my starting equipment that I could have used it to make great stuff using the alchemy system and it was going to be a while before I could replace it and overall in that game you should just NEVER EVER SELL ANYTHING EVER. After that experience, I can’t blame anyone for being careful.

Hoarding items unnecessarily is silly, sure. But if you want to make fun of people for doing it - don’t blame the player; blame the games that taught them they needed to.

|

Is “guide spam” a thing now?

Is it just a thing now that big game launches are followed by bad gaming websites rushing out low-quality “guides” for SEO spam?

Dragon Quest Builders 2 is by far the biggest game I’m playing near launch in quite a while, so I don’t know how representative my experience is, but—

Every time I have a question about the game and want to look something up, my search results contain a lot of really bad resources. Mostly from gaming websites I’ve never heard of and which have clearly whipped together a dozen or so nearly-useless “guides,” each of which is three paragraphs of padding around the simple answer to an obvious question that nobody would have to look up anyway (like a “Where to Find Bark” guide, when there’s one quest that needs bark and it sends you to an area filled with obvious bark) or that only covers the first part of the game (like guides for all the scavenger hunt locations that only include the first two scavenger hunt islands).

I get that it takes some time for those generous and industrious players to put together the comprehensive, high-quality guides, and I’m used to not getting any results when searching this stuff on new or obscure games. I’m not used to getting many results, but terrible ones! There actually are some really good DQB2 guides out there, but it’s taken me a while to sift through the crap and find them.

|

Oh, right. Signal fires.

I mentioned I really like how Dragon Quest Builders 2 has you bring systems back to your home base and use them there. After the island that teaches you to make defensive traps, I got really excited to design my own trap gauntlet for the enemies attacking my home base. I came up with a layout I was sure would be much more effective than anything the story had set up previously, and the NPCs were cheering me on, reminding me of all the traps I had at my disposal and telling me to just use a bunch of them in whatever design I thought best.

Unfortunately, they don’t remind of you the signal fires that create rally points for your soldiers. Those came very early in the previous chapter and I had completely forgotten about them. And without them, the trap gauntlet is completely useless because your people will just charge right through it themselves as soon as they see the enemy and engage with them out past it and none of the traps will even get triggered.

Just one little reminder line of dialog would have gone a very long way. I still won the fight, but it took far longer than it should have and I didn’t get to see my trap gauntlet in action.