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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Dragon Quest Gives Me Pause

Is it a thing for some reason that modern Dragon Quest games don’t want the player to be able to pause?

I was surprised in Dragon Quest Builders that opening the menu or suspending the game (at least on PS4) didn’t pause the game. This would be bizarre in any offline single-player game mode, but in DQB with a day/night cycle, hunger meter, wandering monsters, and speedrun rewards it’s downright obnoxious. I eventually figured out that the game seemed to pause when I viewed the map, but there was no in-game cue to suggest this.

DQB had some other interface oddities (like having ‘menu’ and ‘interact’ be the same button) so I chalked it up to a generally unpolished UX, but then when I played Dragon Quest XI it also was a jerk about pausing. Opening menus or suspending the game (again, at least on PS4) didn’t stop monsters from wandering around or the day/night cycle from progressing (and though I haven’t tested this, apparently cutscenes will continue while the game is suspended). There isn’t even a map pause with this one.

So… is this just a thing? Dragon Quest hates pausing? Enough to buck convention and popular expectation that any offline game would pause in menus and absolutely when suspended and the player can’t even see that things are happening? Enough to - in multiple games across multiple years - punish players for having actual lives with interruptions? Oh, I just started a cutscene and the dog needs to be let out? Ha ha, that was sure my fault and I deserve to miss the cutscene!

It’s such a weird patch of player-hostile design in otherwise warm and friendly games.

#video games #dragon quest xi #dragon quest builders #uxdesign #gaming

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Promises vs Teasers

So, Chrono Trigger on the SNES had an opening movie that played if you left the game on the title screen. It was sort of a highlight reel cut together in a spoiler-minimizing way, showing impressive moments from throughout the game with enough context for you to tell they were significant events but not enough context to understand that significance. It was a teaser of some of the cool stuff you’d get to do and see if you played the game, and it was a trustworthy promise because you could see it was rendered in-engine, down to including battle menus for a few of the scenes.

I remember revisiting this cinematic repeatedly during my first playthrough, excited every time by new moments where I’d say to myself, “Oh! I did that! I know what that is now!” After playing the game, the movie became a highlight reel of my own adventure.

On the PS1 port, they replaced this opening with a fully-animated anime-style movie that introduces the cast via a mix of scenes that basically happen in the game and ones that totally don’t. This accomplishes a very different goal - it shows the characters and sets the mood, but it doesn’t really promise anything specific about what you’re going to do in the game, and even once you’ve played it it just shows things generally reminiscent of your adventures - the animators didn’t extrapolate what people and events look like the same way each player’s imagination did. While the result is more impressive than the in-engine visuals, I can’t help but feel like something has been lost. It feels like an advertisement rather than a highlight reel. A teaser rather than a promise. So I’m glad that more recent ports use both movies.

These days games don’t really do the whole in-engine versus animated/pre-rendered scenes thing anymore, so it’s less clear what you’re seeing in these kinds of movies. I’m a few hours in to Dragon Quest XI and by coincidence I happened to rewatch the opening movie and partway through I was suddenly saying to myself, “Oh! I did that! I know what that is now!” I realized that this was an old-school Chrono Trigger style highlight reel, and I got excited to continue on the adventure and find out what all the other moments in the opening were about. It was good to have that feeling again.

#gaming #video games #chrono trigger #dragon quest xi #opening cinematic

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Compromised Mechanics

I’m fascinated by game mechanics that seem to have been rendered nearly pointless due to what looks like design by committee.

The last few Super Smash Bros. games have had “Challenges” that give various rewards for accomplishing various in-game goals. They’re basically Smash’s Achievement system, but some (generally minor) game content is also locked behind particular challenges.

Each Smash game with challenges also provides players with “golden hammers” that can be used to clear challenges without actually doing them. The challenges feature most or all of the game’s various modes and range widely in difficulty, so if someone doesn’t like a particular gameplay mode or isn’t capable of mastering it hammers let them skip those particular challenges without missing out on whatever content is locked behind them. But only a handful of hammers are available, so the challenges are still a meaningful goal for completion. Players can just file off the roughest, least appealing parts of that goal - which will vary from player to player. And hardcore completionists can still get bragging rights from clearing all the challenges without using a hammer. This is great!

But it seems like somebody didn’t want the individual challenges to lose their potential for bragging rights, because some challenges don’t let you use a hammer - usually the hardest ones for each game mode. As a compromise, this almost completely destroys the value of the hammers. Now you can’t just file off the roughest parts of the challenge completion goal - and why bother filing off the less-rough parts? If you can beat the hardest challenge in a mode without using a hammer, then you can beat the easier challenges in that mode too. And if you can’t, then you’ll never completely clear the challenges anyway, so why bother hammering any? Now the only reason to use a hammer is if you want the specific content locked behind a specific hammerable challenge that you can’t do for real or don’t want to bother with.

Not only have I never used a single golden hammer in any of the Smash games with challenges, when I realized in Brawl that the “Boss Battles” challenges that I knew I’d never beat on the higher difficulties didn’t allow hammers, I lost interest in all the other challenges too. I had a similar experience in the 3DS Smash. It looks like Ultimate is the first Smash where I’ll actually finish the challenges (all I have left are the grind-out-online-matches ones) but the hammers still didn’t help.

I have to wonder whether Nintendo is particularly susceptible to this, because the other example that comes immediately to mind is the Super Guide that can help stuck players in certain Mario titles but carries a lot of weird restrictions. It really should have been permanently available but activated from a menu; instead, it becomes available when you die a certain number of times, guaranteeing that players who want it will need to suffer through the requisite amount of frustration first and that players who don’t will see it as the game mocking their failures.

#gaming #video games #super smash bros #smash bros ultimate #completion #smash bros brawl #super guide #super mario

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The very first version of the Doctor Professor...

The very first version of the Doctor Professor persona was also my first character in City of Heroes (I really miss that game). This was his bio:

With the combined powers of a doctor and a professor, there is no stopping: Doctor Professor! Armed with a prescription for justice and a grad student in liberty, he uses his vast array of personal gadgetry to fight crime, disease, and ignorance, up close and personal. The Doctor… is in. Evil, take your seats.

He’s a rather different character now, but I’ll always be fond of how he first started.

#screenshotsunday #city of heroes #my oc #video games #gaming

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An early-game screenshot from the current alpha...

An early-game screenshot from the current alpha of my first game, Detectivania! I’m creating it to teach myself Twine, to answer the question of “what if you had a Metroidvania that was a conversation game instead of a platformer,” and to prove to myself that I can make games instead of just talking about them.

I’m really excited with how well it’s going, and I’m hoping to release it by the end of the month!

#screenshotsaturday #gamedev #twine game #video games #gaming

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What games would the ST:TNG cast play?

Silly, but something I had fun thinking about.

#gaming #star trek the next generation

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Q.U.B.E. 2 and Binary Ending Choices

After how much I loved Q.U.B.E: Director’s Cut, it was a foregone conclusion that I’d be playing Q.U.B.E. 2 - even though my favorite thing about Q:DC was the story and Q.U.B.E. 2 did not have the same writer. I expected to be disappointed, but had to give it a chance anyway.

When I played it, I was unsurprised to find that most aspects of the game are polished and improved over its predecessor, but the story is (unsurprisingly) worse. I wrote an overall review but I also want to talk about something it does structurally. It’s something a lot of games do, but Q.U.B.E. 2 serves as a sterling example of how badly it can go. I’ll avoid plot details, but structural spoilers follow.

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Sequels Dilute Economic Votes

It’s not clear to me the extent to which various game developers/publishers understand that sales within a franchise can be a lagging indicator.

For example, I used to love the Senran Kagura series of games and I was happy to support it by buying the first several installments - especially the ones that were clearly experiments to see if the games would sell in the west. But the series has clearly lost steam, and the last few games have each been noticeably worse than the one before.

Now here comes Senran Kagura: Burst Re:Newal, a remake of the 3DS original for PC/PS4, and it sounds much better. The original story’s emotional and moral depth is what hooked me on the series in the first place, and this title not only returns to the brawler-style gameplay but apparently improves on it.

This is probably going to be the first Senran Kagura game that I rent instead of buying. My willingness to throw money at this series is dulled considerably after playing the fine-I-guess Estival Versus, the disappointing Peach Beach Splash, and the terrible Reflexions - all of which I did buy. So now I’ve supported bad games and won’t be supporting the presumably-improved one.

I just hope that either most players aren’t like me or the decision makers here understand how this works. But I guess if Burst Re:Newal is totally amazing, I’ll probably go buy it just in case.

#gaming #video games #senran kagura #sequels #economic vote

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A perfect coincidence

The fastest platinum trophy I’ve earned was for Tearaway on Vita which took me a single day. The slowest was for Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning on PS3 which took me six years to the day.

Coincidentally, both trophies are named “Perfectionist.”

This doesn’t matter, but I find it amusing.

(Screenshots from https://psnprofiles.com which gives way better trophy collection data than PlayStation’s official site.)

#gaming #tearaway #kingdoms of amalur #trophies

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Regenerating health and implicit meters

Here’s something I haven’t figured out yet - why do regenerating health and implicit health meters always go hand in hand?

Back in the day, it was normal for most or all games with health to show explicit health meters, whether it be as a number (as in, say, the original Doom), a numeric visual representation (as in, say, The Legend of Zelda’s heart containers), or an analog display (as in, say, Street Fighter II’s health bars). It was also normal for health not to regenerate over time but to require pickups if it was possible to restore at all.

Then we got Halo and Gears of War and stuff and it became common for shooters to have regenerating health and also implicit health meters, generally via making parts of the screen increasingly bloody or dirtied and eventually turning the visuals black and white and dulling the audio. It seems like these always go together - I can’t think of a game with quick health regeneration and explicit health meters, or a game with implicit health meters and no health regeneration.

Why is this? The speculation I have is that in games without health regeneration, health is a resource to manage (do you shoot the enemy from afar and spend more of your limited ammo or charge in for a melee kill at the cost of some health as they attack back, etc.) and thus it’s important to know exactly how much of each resource you have left. Whereas if there is health regeneration, then what’s important to know is whether you are currently in danger, and if so, how much.

What bothers me about this is that, due in large part to how inconsistent the iconography is across games, it’s often difficult to actually understand how much danger you’re in with an implicit meter. This troubled me a lot in Just Cause 3, where the screen gets bloody and then goes black and white as you take damage. But there’s very little readable granularity during the ‘bloody’ phase - I’ve just either taken some damage but not enough to worry about (bloody screen) or I’ve taken a lot of damage and I should run away (black and white screen), without much in between or a good way to tell how quickly I’m taking damage. The result is that I often feel like I’m going along fine until I suddenly get overwhelmed out of nowhere and die, when in reality I was probably in serious danger for a while but didn’t realize it.

I can’t help but feel like a health bar would avoid this problem - I’d always be able to see how much buffer I have and how quickly it’s depleting. Why can’t I have health regeneration and a health bar?

#gaming #just cause 3 #health meters #regenerating health #game design #uxdesign