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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Super Mario Maker 2 showed me why I don’t like 2D Mario

In short: its high strictness and punishment plus its regressive difficulty and locking mechanics behind power-ups make it frustrating to learn to play.

I’ve never really gotten into mainline Mario games, but I was intrigued by Super Mario Maker 2’s story mode, which apparently serves as a sort of extended level design tutorial. It features 120 levels each themed around particular level pieces or combinations thereof, showing you how to use them in play and hopefully providing inspiration for how to use them when creating your own levels. I find tutorial design really interesting, and Mario famously teaches through level design, so I checked it out.

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Suited for Friendship

So, I definitely miss the customization options in City of Heroes due to the fun of coming up with and designing hero concepts, but it recently occurred to me that they also served a useful social purpose.

I’ve joined a “Free Company” (read: guild) in Final Fantasy XIV and it seems like a group of good folks but it’s hard to break the ice and get conversations started and get to know people. Some of this is how bizarrely difficult it is to play together, but some of it is also that our names and character themes all feel… generic.

In City of Heroes, everyone who put effort into their character ended up with an expressive and distinctive concept, look, name, and battlecry - and there was a place you could write in a little bio or backstory for your character too, which other players could freely read. It was a great way for individual players to be more memorable and it presented plenty of conversation starters.

I still remember, for example, the player I teamed up with once in a pick-up group named Your Pal Phil, whose battlecry was “I’ll loan you the five bucks!”

I can’t tell you the name of anyone in my Free Company in FFXIV.

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Apple Arcade and Gateway Games

As excited as I’ve been for Apple Arcade, leading up to launch I noticed that a lot of the most-talked about games were ones I’d rather play on a big screen with a controller. Decently big names like Rayman, Shantae, and Sonic, or indie stuff with plenty of hype like Sayonara Wild Hearts or Assemble With Care. And a lot of emphasis was placed on the idea that these games were new and exclusive (although in many cases the exclusivity only applied to mobile - Sayonara Wild Hearts is also on PS4 and Switch, for example).

It took me a bit to figure out why I was so looking forward to a game subscription service when every game on the service that I’d actually heard of was something I’d rather play on a different platform. But I think I’ve figured it out.

The sort of person who pays attention to Apple Arcade announcements is already a nonrepresentative sample of the population. But even for most people in that slice - when they think of mobile games, I suspect they think of annoying wallet parasites that are maybe good for killing a few minutes in line or whatever. I think most of these folks associate the problems with these games with the mobile platform itself. They see them as just what mobile games are, rather than seeing them as the result of the combination of low-friction micropayments, persistent online connections for metrics gathering, and a race to the bottom enabled by poorly-designed storefronts.

So when they hear about mobile games unshackled (and indeed, actually blocked off) from those particular market pressures and tied instead to a subscription, that’s not enough for them to see the possibilities. For these folks, you also need the legitimacy associated with the names and designs that have earned respect on PC and console - even if those types of games don’t really work well on mobile.

My excitement came from the fact that I’ve seen plenty of evidence that designers know how to make good mobile games if they can just get away from the freemium/gacha bullshit. My optimistic assumption was that beneath the games that were getting all the marketing, the ones that were there to get you to pay attention to Apple Arcade, there would be excellent mobile experiences proving that mobile can be a great gaming platform with its own particular strengths and demonstrating how to make use of them. And once you’re paying for the subscription, you’ll try out those other games because why not, it’s free, and you’ll find something wonderful, and you’ll realize what mobile games can be.

This is how Apple Arcade could be the start of a mobile gaming revolution. This is why it’s more exciting than Google Play Pass, which is arguably a better value in some ways but only bundles games/apps that were already available on Android. That’ll only work on you if you’re already open to those games - it doesn’t open new doors, bring in new players, which a subscription-based platform will need to have to be successful. This is why Apple invested so heavily in flashy exclusives, and it might pay off. I mean, jeez - if it worked on Penny Arcade, it can work on anybody.

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Five Bucks a Month

Let’s review. What does five bucks a month get you in mobile gaming?

On Apple platforms, five bucks a month gets you Apple Arcade, which is a curated library of games still rolling out but supposed to total over a hundred this fall - and several of the games out so far are well-reviewed. There are no ads, no in-app purchases, and no behavior tracking. Games can be downloaded and played offline, though you can also share your progress between devices via iCloud. Games can be shared between up to six family members and can be played with popular game controllers.

On Android platforms, five bucks a month gets you Google Play Pass, which is a curated library of over 350 games and utility apps that are already out (and apparently more to come each month). Many of these games and apps are quite well-regarded. They also have no ads or in-app purchases and can be shared with up to five other family members.

And in Mario Kart Tour, five bucks a month gets you the Gold Pass, which gives you some in-game items and features in a single game that still also requires a persistent internet connection for its always-on DRM and which still also has a microtransaction-backed gacha-based unlock system.

I think it would have been obvious the Gold Pass was a bad deal anyway, but the timing of the announcements here casts it into really sharp relief. It’s so disappointing to see Nintendo fall to such sleazy depths, and I really hope it stays contained to mobile. I’ve still got Mario Kart 8 on my Switch and I’ll be playing that instead.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.