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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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

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The New Old Hotness

Sometimes it’s stressful to start a new game.

Entering a new world, understanding a new set of rules, seeing the systems beneath, learning what’s vitally important and what’s noise to be ignored, all create real cognitive load that can be quite demanding.

It’s pretty silly how many evenings I’ve wanted to unwind with a game but not been in the middle of anything with sufficient chill and found myself unwilling to start a new game, even one known for being relaxed and cozy, because I didn’t have the energy. At those times I want comfort food, not a new adventure.

This is one of those things that’s really helpful about genre conventions and so-called kitsch. It’s one of the major benefits of a series holding on to its core identity. The more you know what you’re getting into, the less energy it takes to get into it.

That’s why I was a little nervous about how different Animal Crossing: New Horizons is from its predecessors, but I was reassured by its connections to the past. I’m pretty sure that no matter how stressed or tired I am today, starting New Horizons isn’t going to scare me off. It’s going to feel like coming home.

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Entitled Developers

So like, I love Nintendo and everything, but this is also the company that decides there is One True Way to play their games to justify forcing you to unlock all characters in an otherwise tournament-ready game one by one, or selling you an expensive controller and then not letting you use it while destroying accessibility by unnecessarily requiring motion controls, or preventing you from backing up your own saves, selling you a save backup service, and then not letting you use it, or requiring an online connection to experience certain content even if playing alone on a portable console.

I’ve heard a lot of talk about entitled gamers, but none about entitled developers. I don’t know what else to call it when a developer feels like they can decide for you how you get to enjoy the games and services you’ve purchased from them and hobbles those games and services in ways that cause real problems for communities, accessibility, and preservation all to stop players from having fun in an unapproved way.

See also: Atlus pretending Fair Use doesn’t exist and dictating terms for using gameplay footage and screenshots (perplexing after their previous backpedaling on the subject), many developers tracking player activity even outside of their game, and on and on.

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Picross meets Phoenix Wright

I have mixed feelings about Murder by Numbers being described as Picross meets Phoenix Wright. The Picross part is accurate enough, but while there are definitely some Ace Attorney vibes here the gameplay bears only a passing resemblance.

Like, yes, there are murders, and you look around for clues and talk to people with simple dialog trees and you can show them your clues to get a reaction and sometimes this is necessary to get more information that moves things forward. But that’s common in mystery games. To me, the essence of Phoenix Wright games are the trials and especially the cross-examinations. Hearing witness testimony, finding the lie or error, and presenting the piece of evidence that proves the contradiction - it requires some actual deduction and understanding of the case’s facts, and to me it makes for the most satisfying moments of those games.

I’m enjoying Murder by Numbers, but I’ve now completed two of the game’s four cases and there’s been nothing like that.

I get that Phoenix Wright is the best-known murder mystery game series with an anime or visual novel style. The comparison would be inevitable even if the soundtrack weren’t by Masakazu Sugimori (who also did the music for the first two Phoenix Wright games). But on some level it frustrates me because it seems based on a superficial read on the series which leaves out its best strengths.

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Standalone Steam Soundtracks

Given my music purchasing habits, it’s frustrated me more than a few times that many indie games only make their soundtracks available for purchase as DLC on Steam. This was fine for games that I happened to buy on Steam, but I have had to resort to double-dipping on a game I already had on a different platform. It was worth it, but still silly.

So I’m really glad Steam finally made soundtracks available as standalone purchases a couple of months ago. And today, I finally made use of this ability for a game I’m playing on Switch. Feels good.

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Switch Fitness

Ring Fit Adventure is apparently sold out everywhere, which is bad timing for folks looking for electronically-assisted indoor fitness options during the COVID-19 pandemic. But it’s worth noting that while Ring Fit Adventure requires dedicated peripherals and is thus not available digitally, there are other Switch fitness games that just use the joy-cons and can thus be bought digitally. And in my house we actually prefer one of those - Fitness Boxing - to Ring Fit Adventure.

If you aren’t familiar, Ring Fit provides a workout, but does so as part of an overarching RPG-like game. The story is very simple and has a cartoonish feel, including a companion character named Ring who is the in-game representation of the ring-con controller and is excited, friendly, and talkative - to me, the overall effect feels weirdly kid-targeted for an exercise game.

In at least the first few regions of the game, you progress through an area and have some fights along the way. Going through the area looks like a forward-facing 3D platformer (a la Crash Bandicoot) and you step in place to move your character. Along the way are opportunities to point the ring-con in a direction and squeeze it to release an air burst to break something and get coins or open a door or things like that, or point it down and squeeze to hover across gaps. The battles are turn-based and your attacks are variously categorized exercises like squats and yoga chair-pose lifts and such.

I was left feeling like the target audience for Ring Fit is someone who doesn’t want to or can’t be particularly deliberate about their exercise and is looking for a distracting framework to motivate them through it. The idea seems to be that you just play regularly and get through some levels until you’re tired or whatever, and you’ll definitely burn calories but it’s not a consistent or targeted workout. There’s always plenty of stepping, but the other actions aren’t necessarily balanced, especially if you’re optimizing for combat effectiveness instead of a better exercise, which seems likely for the sort of person who wants to play this game. The idea seems to be that the RPG is appealing and distracting and you’ll get exercise in the course of playing the RPG.

I did not find the RPG appealing, given how kid-targeted it seemed. And for me, it’s more useful to get into a consistent rhythm with my exercise so that I can just get in the zone.

Fitness Boxing is much more suited to this. It’s essentially a rhythm game that gives you instructions on the beat via scrolling icons, similar to Dance Dance Revolution. And while you can pick specific exercises if you like, you can also just have it tell you what to do. For example, I told it my fitness goals were “Strength and Cardio” and that I wanted 15-minute workouts, and then I could just start the “Daily Workout” from the menu and it would give me a 15-minute-ish workout that gets slightly harder each day based on my history and performance. I know how long it’ll take, I won’t be unpredictably changing what I’m doing along the way, I won’t have to stop and think about what attacks to use, and I can just get into the rhythm.

(There’s also Just Dance, but those workouts are not progressive in the same way.)

So, you know. There are other options besides Ring Fit Adventure - ones that can’t sell out. And for many players those other options are better anyway.

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