Archive for the 'Games' Category

On Games For Windows Live

Tuesday, October 21st, 2014

Seeing that Dark Souls is finally being unshackled from Games For Windows Live (which means you might be able to finally do proper match making without third party mods) got me thinking, once again, about Games For Windows Live.

How is it possible that Microsoft invested that much money and effort and status in a service that no human soul wanted and that every user agreed was destined for the dust bin of history? How and why do companies with effectively infinite budgets conjure and deploy such terrible and ultimately doomed projects? I mean, yeah, I know. Windows ME. It’s not their first cock up. But it’s a stand alone cock up, which means it was conjured in a vacuum.

Sure, there were likely some/many people involved in it that tried to make it a good service. And there were probably many more that knew damn well they were creating a blighting turd. And I know how it is – the people at the top have staked their jobs on the success of a thing without understanding it, and the people in the trenches don’t have the clout to defy them.

But my question is WHY? Why does that structure exist? Why has it not evolved? Where is the economic Darwinism that should have killed off that sort of project management ages ago? If companies that invest money in OBVIOUSLY doomed endeavors (and I’m not talking about experiments or high hope projects, I’m talking about sad pieces of crap like GFWL) objectively piss money away, why has no corporate mechanism or culture evolved to prevent that?

Now, please understand. I’m not trying to stifle new ideas. Innovation is the life blood of most industries, especially the tech sector. A certain number of new ideas and projects will fail. Some will fail because they were inherently bad ideas, or because of poor management, or they were ahead of their time, or even just that the right talent wasn’t on board. But there are certain initiatives, often high visibility initiatives, that are unanimously identified as doomed from the moment they surface. How do they get to that point without any sort of counter-check in place?

And sure, it’s easy to point your finger at a bad idea in hindsight. And many good ideas (even great ideas) also meet resistance and criticism. Case in point? I’ve had a Steam account since launch (because Valve pretty much made it mandatory for Half-Life 2) and I remember the sketchiness of that service’s early days. I remember the angry blowback from a great many users and gamers. It was a project that was honestly ahead of its time, but whose goals seemed weird and poorly outlined. And while there were some technical hurdles, there was a fundamental way that Steam (even in its infancy) was different than Games For Windows Live.

The problems with Steam were that it failed to deliver on its intended vision, and mostly for technical reasons. Those reasons resolved themselves thanks to the old equation of Time Plus Money. And also some savvy stewardship from Valve. Contrast that to GFWL, and it’s easy to see what marks the latter as a bad idea. First of all, it was never able to overcome its own technical hurdles. That’s pretty inexcusable, honestly, considering that Microsoft has infinity dollars AND controls both the service an the platform it ran on.

But the technical problems were really just window dressing. The main problem with GFWL was that even if it had been technically flawless from day one and had flawlessly delivered its exact vision, it was a terrible vision that no one wanted. No gamer wanted to tie their PC experience to their console. No gamer wanted to only be able to be logged into one piece of hardware at a time. No gamer wanted their PC titles to be associated with a list of other players that were almost guaranteed to be on an incompatable platform.

I could go on and on for ways and days, documenting every detail of GFWL’s terribleness. I won’t bother, because Google exists. But the core point is that with Steam, the core user feedback was that we didn’t quite understand what Valve was trying to make, and it didn’t work right. The core point with GFWL was that we understood exactly what Microsoft was trying to make, and it was stupid. And it didn’t work right.

So I’m not trying to stifle innovation or experimentation. That’s the last thing I want. But there are indicators and markers for projects that are clear winners, projects that are in flux, and projects that are guaranteed losers. Failures before they ever go live. Straight up money sinks. So why are they so common (although not exclusive) to tech – and especially gaming? And if the worst offenders are so easily identified, why hasn’t the business culture (so interested in maximizing profits) developed any ways to deal with them?

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Unquestionably The Future

Monday, April 18th, 2011

While conversing with a friend about how addictive and clever cell phones have become over the past few years, I sent her (as I often do) a link to a particular Three Panel Soul that I feel really speaks to the heart of the matter. I’ve loved that particular comic (and the work that Matt and Ian do in general) for years. But looking at it this morning, for maybe the hundredth time, I started to think on the deeper implications of those words.

And not in a bad way, either. Some people would look at that comic and lament for how small and introspective the human race has become as a result of technology. They’d conjure up cliche imagery of throngs of people, standing shoulder to shoulder, eyes locked on tiny little screens as the wonder of blah blah blah. You know the rest. A hundred dark horse critics could paint a thousand pictures of dystopian isolationism and I’d have seen it all before.

They’re full of it, by the way. They’re thoroughly missing the point. But I’ll get to that later.

Behind the clever flying-cars trope is a much more meaningful comparison of what we expected the future to be like versus what the future will actually be like. It touches on some of the same themes that Scott Ramsoomair played with recently over at VGCats (where flying cars were also mentioned). But while Scott laments the future that will never be, Ian and Matt suggest that that future was silly anyway. That it was the product of overly simplistic expectations – humanity’s attempt to imagine the future by looking at the present and assuming that the future would just be more of that, only slightly different.

Would we really ever have imagined flying cars without the invention of flying planes? The flying car, my friends, is Put A Clock On It imagination. Take two things that already exist and mush them together. It’s only the prospect of personal freedom (and probably the Back to the Future movies) that makes the idea appealing. And maybe it’d even be totally sweet. But it’s not a brilliant or really, even a clever idea.

Now, you could argue that smart phones are really just the same thing. Take an idea that already exists (the computer) and apply it to another medium. But the difference is far vaster. Because it’s not just the computer aspect, or just the internet aspect of the device that makes it amazing. It’s the information and the connectivity. It is the ability, from almost anywhere on the planet (insert snarky cell phone coverage joke here) to call up any piece of information known to mankind.

That sort of communicative power most certainly is addictive and is amazing. I’ve had what most people would call a modern phone for less than a month. And in that time, I’ve deposited checks right from my camera, arranged and organized airline tickets and rental cars, found obscure eateries, reconnected with two old friends, purchased birthday presents, researched technical specifications (ironically, for an accessory for said phone), recorded moments of hilarity both impromptu and deliberate. . . the list is staggering. More staggering is that I was able to do this from anywhere I happened to be at the very moment those situations arose.

But most staggering of all is that the technology that is going to change the world (hell, is already changing the world) is tiny, portable and more than anything else, is designed to allow one person to talk to another. It isn’t propulsion or destruction that is changing human culture. It’s communication. I tell you, it almost makes my cynical heart flutter.

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So I Hear

Wednesday, December 29th, 2010

A lot of people ask me what smart phone they should buy, and to be honest, I’m getting tired of answering them individually. Thankfully, I don’t really have to.

Feel free to print that out and hand it to your relatives, neighbors, and cubicle dwellers when they task you with this same inquiry.

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Brotherhood Defines

Friday, December 3rd, 2010

Upon hearing about Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, my initial reaction was to roll my eyes. Now let’s be clear, I love me some Assassin’s Creed. I even enjoyed the first one, which was a heavily flawed game whose sheer novelty and scope saved it from being unplayably repetitive. And as I’ve said in this space, the sequel was crafted with every last player complaint in mind, managing to fix virtually everything that was wrong with the first AC aside from some minor annoyances with the combat system.

But a sequel only one year later? And set in the same time period, with the same characters, after that character’s primary revelation is already a matter of game canon? That just smacked of laziness. Or cheapness. The fact that it was originally announced as a multi-player addition to the series certainly made it sound like an add-on that got too big for its britches, and the fact that there were a rash of other add-ons that got turned into whole games (I’m looking at you ODST) didn’t help my opinion much.

Well damn was I wrong. I mean really, truly, stunningly, joyously wrong. I’m prepared to say that ACB is not only the best game in the series so far, but it is miles ahead of even ACII. The last title corrected all of the flaws and unfinished ideas of the first game. Brotherhood allowed Ubisoft to spend their creative talents not on fixing old problems, but on pushing the boundaries and the limits of what was already an accomplished title. The combat is finally where it needs to be thanks to the Killing Streak system. The economic system is also vastly improved and much more engaging. Setting the entire game in one city seemed odd at first, but Rome’s scope and variety are more than sufficient, and it gives everything a more “connected” sandbox feel.

In fact, the game has shades of GTA4 in ways that the previous two titles did not, despite them also being open environments. The optional content is much more robust, and just as addictive. It also doesn’t feel like side content, which I appreciate. Even the simpler assassination or reputation missions are complex, unique and satisfying. There are also an entire series of missions that take you to one-shot locations (which give you a closed “stalker” environment to play in) and another set that send you down below Rome itself for some of the most exciting free running and parkour style environment scaling that I’ve seen in any game to date.

And speaking of locations? While I still think the Crusades time period made for a more interesting setting, placing the action of ACB in Rome proper (and moving the final missions to the Vatican) went a long way for me. The game more tightly ties the Templar conspiracy to actual power than the other two titles. Subject 16’s secret clues are back, and the logic puzzles that you have to solve definitely kick the challenge up a notch as well. They also display a stunning, brazen, and politically aware sense of self.

While the puzzle tie-ins in ACII mostly dealt with older history (especially the stuff about Tesla and Edison), Brotherhood’s puzzles indict everything from capitalism to communism. The segment about the recent Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, how it was disguised as a free speech issue, and the utterly devastating effect it has on the electoral process was especially surprising (and welcome).

I am looking forward to the continuation of this series, and I’ll admit that I am still ravenously curious as to the next chunk of history they’re going to set the game in. I still think both the Revolutionary War and France’s Reign of Terror or Revolution would make excellent settings (both in terms of style as well as their ability to mesh with the Templars / Assassins story). But for right now, I’m glad to say that I was just plain wrong (which is what I get for ever doubting Ubisoft). Brotherhood is absolutely worth the price of admission, and I cannot think of a single sane or logical reason not to play it.

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Wherein Square Enix Insults Me

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

My long time readers know that this website started, primarily, as a distribution center for Aden’s Renkei Chart. I wouldn’t have a lot of the audience or name recognition amongst gamers that I do have (small, comparatively, as it is) if it weren’t for Final Fantasy XI. It’s a game I played for years, and a game that I still have so many fond memories of. It’s also a game I watched consume itself over time, shaving away at the tolerable injustices that it inflicted on its user base until what passed for “endgame content” became a parody of everything that was wrong with the MMO market.

But news of FFXIV got me excited! Clearly, the art style (and in many cases the basic design) reflected FFXI’s original material. The same races were present (though renamed) and while it was set in a new world, there was a lot of Vana’diel to be found. The job system looked more intuitive and less punishing. There was a lot more solo-capable content to be found. There would be more emphasis on involving the player in the game’s plot, and less emphasis on needless time sinks. Everything I read suggested that Square Enix had listened to their player base, carefully thought over the issues that were hurting FFXI, and designed FFXIV around improving them. Upping the native resolution from 320×240 wouldn’t hurt, either.

I’m here to tell you that I tried. I really tried. I made every effort to give FFXIV the benefit of the doubt. I assumed, at first, that there was just a learning curve that I had to explore, much as their was in FFXI. That the game had rewarding and engaging ideas bubbling just below the surface. That the issues I was encountering were merely a result of the product being in beta. But with less than two weeks until the official product launch, I am here to tell you that FFXIV is an insufferable failure. There is virtually nothing redeemable or even acceptable about the product as it exists today. If you were planning on buying it, don’t. If you have it pre-ordered, cancel that immediately. I don’t engage in out-and-out bashing very often (I think I’ve only done it to one other game on this website, and that was Spider-Man 3). But Final Fantasy XIV isn’t just terrible. It’s fucking insulting.

As far as I can tell, the only thing that Squeenix learned from FFXI is that making game systems unintuitive is amusing. They actually managed to work something perplexing into the character creation tool, where you are asked to select your character’s birthday, birth month and guardian (where as best I can tell, that guardian has a specific area of influence in either combat, spellcasting or crafting, and is associated with a particular calendar month). Whether these are superficial or influence your play, I couldn’t tell you. But before I even launched the game, I was already looking gaming mechanics up on the internet. I should have stopped right there.

The game starts with a cutscene, which was surprising. I spent about five minutes wondering why it was only using subtitles until I realized that there were voices, I just couldn’t hear them. Sure, it’s beta. But it’s also a week from shipping, and there was no help to be found on the internet. The game then dropped me into a limited combat situation, where I got my first taste of FFXIV’s controls.

If you played FFXI, image those controls, but make them much stiffer and more sluggish. If you haven’t played FFXI, I can’t think of a game that had bad enough controls for me to make a meaning comparison. There is a nominal improvement when using a gamepad, but it’s still a struggle to perform basic game functions. It’s actually unpleasant to move your character. They’ve made WALKING awkward. I have played games in emulation that are more responsive. And if you do want to use a mouse? You’ll need to download an install a community-based hack of the normal game file in order to enable Direct X hardware support. Otherwise the mouse has about a two second delay at all times and feels, at best, “swimmy”.

After that brief battle, I got treated to another cutscene (to be fair, the cutscenes are pretty good) and then deposited in town. From there I talked to a quest NPC. And then that same one again. And then another in-engine cutscene (where the dialogue appears in the chat box). That was decidedly less good. Then I’m told to go visit an outpost which is marked on my map, though the map takes about three or four seconds to load up, is larger than my screen size, and I can’t seem to scroll it.

Oh, speaking of my screen size? I hope you like windowed play, because if you run this game fullscreen, your game WILL crash. Actually, that brings me to the configuration tool. You can set some basic things, like chat filters and keymappings, from inside the game. However, if you want to adjust your actual graphics settings or make any real changes to your game setup, you will have to exit the client completely and run a separate config utility. Then you have to re-launch and re-log in to see how those changed perform. That’s just utterly unacceptable in 2010 – even FFXI had better options menus.

Okay, so back to the game. I run to the spot on my map and sort of click on a crystal thing. Then I get a mission – go kill three mushroom men in thirty minutes. Great, a solo quest! I run up to the first mushroom man, draw my weapon, and disconnect from the game. Okay, it’s beta. I’ll let that slide. I log back in to find myself dead from poison. So I return to the crystal, run out to a mushroom man, draw my weapon, and disconnect again. I log back in and, guess what? I’m dead from poison. So I decide to take a break.

I log back in the next day, respawn at the crystal, and notice that I no longer have a timer. And I cannot restart the quest. Back to the internet I go, only to find out that I have to run back to town to restart the quest that lets me restart the quest. So I figure I’ll do a little solo grinding on the way back to try out the combat, except as I level the game is telling me that I’ve acquired new abilities, but they are nowhere to be found in my ability list. Also, I died from poison another couple of times simply because the mushroom men used it at the very end of the fight.

I guess this is as good a place to talk about combat as any. The controls work more or less like FFXI, which is to say stiff and auto-target-locked. However, the game has added a new bar called the Stamina Bar. In theory, this bar acts like an ATB mechanic. Abilities cost a certain “amount” of that bar, and I cannot attack until the bar fills up enough. Simple enough. Except I still don’t really understand how it works.

I made four levels from straight kill XP, and I couldn’t tell you whether my character auto-attacks or not. I think the game uses active-only strikes, which I approve of. But between the lag and the wonkiness of the interface, it’s all a blur. Sometimes I’d have a full bar, mash 1 (as I only had one attack at the time, more on that later) and the game would tell me I couldn’t do that yet. Sometimes my Stamina bar would be below what appeared to be the minimum threshold and I’d start wailing on my opponent from one button press. Between the general game lag and the phone-it-in controls, I felt like I had absolutely no connection with what was happening on-screen. And then I’d die from poison.

So eventually I make it back to town and talk to my quest NPC, who rewards me for failing the quest with another weapon ability. Now suddenly all of the weapon abilities I’d earned are available to be put on my action bar. But the game made no effort to encourage me to return to that NPC – in fact the NPC’s own entry in my Journal (which is where quests are listed) encouraged me to explore around a while before coming back.

So tonight I am going to head out with my new hotbar full of attacks, hopefully jump start the questing system, and see if there’s something to enjoy in this game. But understand that I don’t really want to do any of this. In fact, I’m mostly doing it out of some sense of responsibility. I actively loathe this game so very much, that I feel I shouldn’t be this critical of it without giving it a chance to redeem itself. I feel guilty for shredding it this badly.

But the game is bad. And I don’t mean subjectively bad, because I don’t like the game they are trying to make. I mean that they have thus far utterly failed at their own stated intentions and goals. What they have created feels like a hack job. A tired rehash of a game they’d already pulverized. The battle system is more immediate, but every bit as wooden. And as for the much vaunted graphics? They are very pretty. But they strike me as little more than an updated texture pack for FFXI. I honestly want to know what Squeenix has been doing for the past three years. And if the answer is that they’ve been working tirelessly on FFXIV, they should be ashamed of themselves.

So l like I said. Tonight I will venture out into the game some more. Maybe roll a different character in a different starting town to see if my basic game experience will allow things to move more smoothly. I am really trying to find something to like here. Though at this point, I would settle for not being insulted.

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Building The Imperfect Beast

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

The original Guild Wars was simply not a product that pulled at my attentions. Don’t get me wrong, it looked like a very good product and the design team was certainly of a high pedigree. But between the games I was playing and the people I was playing them with, there wasn’t anything there that said, “Spend your time here instead.”

Now, I know the terrible gulfs that exist between the promise of a game trailer and the game itself. But it sounds like the Guild Wars 2 team is genuinely examining what an MMO means, and attempting to throw out a lot of the concepts that break immersion and just plain aren’t fun. It’s too early to say, and I’ll certainly need to see how their “things actually happening” systems work. Active battle systems in an MMO are suspect to me as well, as they are often largely perception tricks. But it sounds, philosophically, as though the GW2 designers are moving in the right direction. It’s almost as if someone cooked up most of this shit two plus years ago. Or maybe even three plus years ago.

At any rate, if you like games (and I’m presuming that if you’ve read this far, you do), you should check out the trailer over on Joystiq.

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Threatening MMOs

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

I’ve written before about the state of MMOs, the dated mechanics that drive them, and the sorts of innovation that will propel the evolution of the genre. Since I started posting on that topic, I’ve received a lot of feedback – including several emails from MMO developers – that largely agreed with my observations but also made the completely fair observation that talking about how much better a product can be on a blog is an incredibly easy and cheap thing to do. Designing it so it actually works (and then getting the notoriously curmudgeony MMO community to accept it) is much more tricky.

A lot of these discussions take place in direct relation to World of Warcraft, and whether you like WoW or hate it, the reason is quite obvious. Most MMOs that come out are doomed to either failure or at least obscurity specifically because of the behemoth from Blizzard. It dominates its genre in a way that no other game in no other genre does. The very nature of MMOs make them exclusive by default. From both a pricing and a time investment model, it is not reasonable for most gamers to play more than one of them at once. Especially not if they have other concerns like a job, a social life, and might actually want to play other non-MMO games as well.

In that respect, MMOs are unlike any other gaming genre. Some folks might bounce from one to another occasionally, but most of the MMO players that I know have one MMO that they invest genuine time in, and that choice is often dictated by both the quality of the MMO and the availability of their preferred gaming community. I know that the last time or two I went back to FFXI, it wasn’t for the game itself so much as it was for my Linkshell. And I know that when I take a little WoW break, what often brings me back is my Guildmates.

This situation is exasperated by the time requirements of MMOs. While it’s not uncommon for me to return to other types of games periodically (certainly, I might play a new shooter in the same span of time that I log a few hours of Team Fortress 2), it’s just not realistic for an MMO. For the vast chunk of the market, for all of the subscribers that actually matter, an MMO either gets their monthly fee or it doesn’t.

World of Warcraft has capitalized on that truth and tuned their gaming experience for that reality. They don’t inherently care if their customer base plays another game as well, but the truth of their industry is that customers who play another MMO are less likely to continue playing (and thus paying for) WoW. It’s a dastardly reality, but at the same time it has driven incredible levels of content, developer time and genre evolution. Yes, Blizzard’s lead on even the second most popular MMO is comical, but at the same time, they never rest on their laurels.

Constant content, mechanics updates, regular expansions and the infinite re-tooling of the very class mechanics upon which the game is based are designed to keep players interested in WoW, to the exclusion of anything else that might otherwise seem like a decent investment of $15 per month. And in that respect (as Tycho of Penny Arcade observed years ago), Blizzard has the budget, the development team, and the sheer marketplace power to lay smaller MMOs to waste.

Or at the very least, to marginalize them into niche games. And sadly (as has been my experience in four MMOs that I’ve given a month or two’s worth of attention to over the last few years), those games are principally populated by jaded WoW junkies who simply cannot shut the fuck up about how much better whatever they are playing is than WoW, in much the same way (and with the same level of sincerity) a hooker might tell you what a big dick you have.

So, with that daunting wall of financial reality expressed in many more paragraphs than I’d originally intended, I’m going to talk about something that is likely to piss a lot of MMO players off. I said before that MMO players inherently resist change, and I meant it (I’m looking at you, Sad Sacks That Still Play Everquest 1). People assume roles in MMOs and get very comfortable both with those roles and the tools they use to execute on those roles. It becomes part of their playstyle and skillset, rigidly divided into Damage, Tanking and Healing.

I’ve said before that the distinction of these three roles strangles MMO development and forces arbitrary mechanics into the game. The developers for Guild Wars 2 apparently feel the same way, as there will be no tanks or healers in their upcoming sequel. That’s a very radical approach, and it trends the game more towards a Diablo style of play than a Warcraft one – not that I have anything but love for Diablo. It is a radical departure from the established playstyle, though Guild Wars is in many ways a different genre of game (requiring no subscription). In that respect, it is more Diablo than Warcraft anyway.

But Guild Wars 2 stands more or less alone in that regard. And while I agree that they’re addressing the correct problem, I think there is a much more articulate way of solving it than simply removing class roles and turning everyone into a self healing, self tanking damage dealer. Many players don’t want to hear this, but the problem has always been tanking – because in MMOs tanking is a completely arbitrary and mechanics driven activity. Hell, I primarily play a tank and on some level I don’t want to hear it. Doesn’t make it untrue. And I’ll prove it to you.

In most MMOs, tanks have two basic things they need to be good at. The first is that they need to be able to mitigate damage, either through absorption or avoidance. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. It makes sense that the person designated to take the biggest hits would want to focus on those sorts of abilities and stats. But that brings us to the designation. The second thing a tank has to do is generate threat. And that’s where the combat mechanics of almost every MMO fall completely apart. Threat (or aggro if you want to go old school) is killing MMOs. In fact, I’ll go one step further. If you can find a way to make threat not matter, you would solve not only grouping problems and role problems, but you would also have an instant solution to the PvP versus PvE branching in MMO combat.

First of all, let’s define our terms. Threat is an invisible game mechanic that causes the AI in MMOs to be stupid. It makes enemies and bosses spend all of their time attacking the most damage resistant and (here’s the important part) least threatening player in the fight. It is a button you press or a meter you watch – and the fact that most MMOs don’t include any graphical display for threat mechanics alone tells you how much of a crutch it is – that causes fights to hobble along in a completely artificial order. Again, it actively causes enemies to make the worst possible tactical choices. Somehow, I have trouble taking seriously the Lich King himself, master of all the Scourge and the single greatest threat to all life on Azeroth, if he can be distracted by a guy with a shield yelling, “Hey you! Come attack me!” every ten seconds.

The proof of this is as direct as the comparison between PvE and PvP. In the average PvE scenario, enemies wind up attacking the tanks first, the DPS second (assuming all the tanks are dead) and then the healers last. Some MMOs swap the healers and damage dealers, depending on the once again artificial threat mechanics, but the point is that the tanks get the most damage and attention. That’s a game device to allow tanking. Compare that to a PvP encounter. In those situations, it’s always either healers or dangerous DPS that get selected for death first. Any tanks on the field (if there are any) are considered a nuisance, relegated to last place status.

The same thing is true of how players deal with enemies. When confronted by a group of AI targets, it is almost always the healer that gets burned first. The only exception is for special mobs that have dangerous or powerful attacks that can endanger the entire group (the afore-mentioned dangerous DPS). Tough but weak-hitting melee targets get saved for the end of the fight to be “cleaned up”. In our AI analogy, those would be the tanks. Except because players have a sliver of common sense, those tanks cannot do their job. Players are not chained to an absurd mechanic like aggro tables. Rather, they are analyzing the actual threat that their targets pose and attack accordingly.

The point is that if you could make tanks the most dangerous target without a threat mechanic, you would simultaneously cause PvE targets to act logically and introduce a vibrant and new PvP mechanic that would largely mirror the normal game tactics. With that baseline, the same abilities, stats and group compositions that are valued in PvE could be valued in PvP. Combat would make sense across the board and true PvPvE scenarios (which games like Aion promised but largely failed to deliver on) would become a reality.

Now obviously there are things that wouldn’t work. You can’t simply ramp up tank damage, or else groups would be composed of nothing but tanks and healers – and healers would still be the primary targets. Rather, you need to give tanks abilities that provide the one thing that aggro tables attempt to: control. For far too long, damage dealers have also been the players that can control and manipulate opposing targets. They are the ones with the snares and the stuns and the roots and knockdowns  and the slows the various other crippling abilities. They are the ones who will put an enemy target out of commission completely so that other targets can be focus fired down.

Logically, this makes very little sense. It’s just another reason for DPS to be a bigger threat than tanks. If you were to give these sorts of abilities to tanking classes, you could create all sorts of situations where enemies (both players and AI) need to keep their focus on the tanks in order to avoid or mitigate effects that completely lock them out of combat. Essentially, you give a tank tremendous combat advantages over any target that is targeting someone else. And they would have to be powerful abilities – strong enough to make suiciding against a healer an invalid tactic. They would also have to be balanced around multiple tanks on the field (a simple system where a target cannot be “marked” by more than one tank at once would suffice).

There are even very interesting things you could do with collision, lag allowing of course, to mimic the real world functionality of putting the big armored brutes in front and the squishy rangers in the back. But anything to remove the absurdity of aggro tables would be an improvement.

Giving tanks mobility, crowd control and potentially multiplied damage on enemies who ignore tanks in favor of squishier targets, combined with a ramping down of the instant gibbability of non-tanks (so that a lack of a 100% threat lock via a metered mechanic doesn’t spell utter disaster) would make for a much more balanced, much more realistic game. To Blizzard’s credit, it sounds like they are making non-tanks slightly less destroyable in terms of health pools, so they’re getting there. But I don’t see them getting rid of threat anytime soon. Their system is structured too firmly around the idea, and the concept of the threat meter is as inherent a part of WoW as anything else – even though Blizzard’s own default UI still does not offer an actual threat meter.

But although much of this article talks about World of Warcraft (for the many reasons I’ve detailed above), it’s not a suggestion for Blizzard. I started this article talking about the MMO market and the difficulty that WoW poses to new entries into that genre. As long as companies continue to crank out weaksauce WoW clones that offer nothing significant or new in terms of gameplay, they will fail. The problem lies in trying to best Blizzard’s offering, because it has an incredible level of invested time and polish. Hell, the new expansion is going back and redesigning every single quest, enemy and area from the original game. Not just tuning, but completely burning down and rebuilding it all. I don’t know if there are any game studios equipped to compete with the Warcraft juggernaut head to head, offering a similar product.

The only way to establish more than a loose foothold in that market is to create something that Blizzard is either unable or unwilling to offer in WoW. It sounds like BioWare is taking that route with Knights of the Old Republic, and the combination of a beloved IP with a more personal gaming experience (that blends MMO anonymity with the concept of story and character) might be enough. Turning out a well built MMO that doesn’t take place in a purely fantasy setting will also be helpful.

But outside of that one rather unique example (especially with Jumpgate Evolution in limbo), there’s not much new on offer other than updated graphics engines and clunky fight mechanics. Redefining the relationship between targets and attackers by getting rid of threat is exactly the sort of change that would vastly improve gameplay, encourage more people to take on the tanking role (thus removing another awkward obstacle most MMOs suffer from), and add a genuine sense of realism and parity to a game’s combat mechanics.

Threat is a crutch. A stopgap for lazy design. An artificial construct intended to plaster over one of the gaping holes in MMO fight mechanics. My suggestion for designing it out of existence is one approach, and I am sure there are others. But the development team that launches a solid MMO offering where threat is an effect of combat rather than a cause will have an advantage over World of Warcraft that not even Blizzard’s absurd bank balance can offset.

I can’t say that the next big MMO will definitely strip aggro tables from its combat, but it will eventually happen. And once we are used to that model, we will stare aghast at the old way of playing MMOs with the same sort of chortling disdain and misplaced nostalgia that we currently have for games like the original Everquest. As an outdated relic that expressed the desires of the genre without ever fulfilling them. A few people will never move on – but most of us will never look back.

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Meaning For Ten Bucks Or less

Saturday, July 17th, 2010

There are plenty of problems with DLC – I don’t know if this post is the place to detail them all. But as I see it, there are two primary types of DLC out there. The first exists in multi-player offerings, everything from additional maps to new songs for Guitar Band Hero Rock Lip Times. These are stand-alone offerings that provide additional content to be stomped through, and don’t concern whatever story mode or campaign arc the game ships with. Other than the varying price point (by which I mean to say, if you’ve spent $30 on Modern Warfare 2 maps without them even fixing the absurd levels of game breaking bullshit that are part and parcel of that multiplayer experience, you are daft in the head), the model generally works.

DLC starts to run into problems for games with cohesive single player campaigns, or where the single player campaign is the entirety of the game. The problem is very direct – DLC splinters the game’s community into two groups. This problem is bad enough with things like map packs, where all that is being fractured is the matchmaking. But if you ever plan on developing your IP further, and making a sequel, you need to assume that what the plot ended with the actual game. That has the unfortunate side effect of rendering everything that takes place in the DLC moot. Which is why so many DLC packages contain new levels and scenarios where absolutely fucking nothing happens.

I first noticed this issue, actually, with the first piece of DLC I ever bought – the additional content for the new Prince of Persia (not the movie tie in. . . thing, but the new cell shaded one). It was a game I actually really enjoyed, but the story itself ended on an incredibly down note. Seeing as how the DLC adds a new level and a new chapter immediately after one of the most depressing endings in gaming history, I was looking forward to seeing what Ubisoft would do with that scenario.
It turns out they did nothing. The Price and What’s Her Name bound through an entirely new temple, if by “new” you mean a brief rehash of what was already plentiful in the maine game. Not that the DLC was bad, I actually enjoyed it. But there was nothing there that wasn’t in the game proper, and at the end of the DLC they were in just as bad a position as at the end of the game. Identical in fact.

Now, other DLC attempts to circumvent the plot tampering problem by setting their content “outside” of the main story, or in the middle of it, or by ret-conning it into the existing plot arc. Gears of War 2 released an abandoned level that the team finally polished for release. If GoW2 hadn’t already been a full and exceptional game, I might have felt a bit cheated about paying for that. Tomb Raider: Underworld did the same thing, but then at least tried to branch off an offer different game modes.

The first Force Unleashed pack was a stage that they wedged in between two existing stages in the game, though it doesn’t seem to care where you are in the game or what progression your character was at. The other DLC (which I refuse to buy, based on its current brevity and price) takes place in an alternate reality version of the game that splinters off from the “real” ending, and has absolutely no bearing on the sequel.

All of this was running through my head today as I stared at the box for Alan Wake, a game which I thoroughly enjoyed despite its casual faults and would be very happy to play more of, if there were any. The original buzz was that the DLC for Alan Wake would actually be Alan Wake 2, an approach that I found refreshing and exciting. That changed shortly after launch, and now the DLC will be a “bridge” between Alan Wake and its sequel. In other words? Nothing is going to happen. It can’t.

Because Remedy can’t reasonably expect players to have definitely purchased the additional chapters in order to maintain their understanding of the story. Even they realize that would be unsportsmanlike. So the solution is to release DLC that’s a rehash of Alan Wake in slightly different scenarios where nothing relevant to the plot takes place. And since Alan Wake steeps itself so heavily in its own plot, that means there won’t be much there.

Now, the first of these two (or maybe three) DLC packs is going to be free, because I bought the game new. So I’ll obviously check that one out. And at the relatively sane price point of $7, I might investigate the others anyway, depending on their length. But DLC could be doing so much more, especially for a story-driven game like Alan Wake. It could be, if it wasn’t for the very nature of the delivery system. I can already hear the narration on the final bit of DLC, telling me how despite my best efforts the situation was still grim, and it would take much more to finally set things right. As in, it will take me buying Alan Wake 2 in 2013 (or whenever it comes out).

Now, a very good friend of mine did suggest a solution to this problem. Release meaningful DLC, and then pacakage the sequel with a redemption code that makes the DLC for the first game free. The real fans of the game will buy the DLC long before the sequel comes out, the people that don’t care about the plot will skip it, and the people who only buy the sequel will actually have an additional incentive to go back and pick up the first one.

Of course, this is a great solution, so don’t look for the industry to adopt it anytime soon. But they’re going to have to come up with something. The community has already had a rough time adapting to DLC, and overall I think the feeling is pretty universal. We like it, we want it, and we’re willing to pay for it. But we most definitely want more out of it. There’s got to be a middle ground between clunky additional levels and full on episoding gaming that allows additional DLC to have meaning and substance, but not break the game for people who aren’t willing or able to carry the addional cost. And the developer that finds it first is going to find itself awash in delicious cash dollars.

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The More Things Change

Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

I’ve been meaning to write about Aion for quite some time, but I honestly haven’t been able to scrape up the will to do so. There isn’t a lot to say that hasn’t been said already. It’s a better-than-average Korean MMO (which doesn’t say much on its own) that is entertaining and engaging for about the month’s worth of free play that you get with the title. The flying works like most other MMOs (air swimming), and the gliding is actually much more fun though useful primarily as a way to run from objective to objective in slightly less time.

The classes are generic and poorly balanced, and suffer from the common MMO problem of having a tank / healer shortage. They also suffer from the old PvE / PvP problem (what works in one sucks in the other, and vice versa). And the wealth of content available in the first two leveling zones (from 1 to 20) dries up pitifully once you progress beyond that point, so be prepared for some heavy and directionless XP grinding. Crafting is functional and can produce excellent returns but can be both costly and time consuming. Aion’s player base is obsessed with griping about how World of Warcraft is no longer hardcore enough to the point where you are unable to have any other discussion, and yet the player base seems no more skilled or mature than the WoW population. In short, Aion is plagued by all of the problems of a freshly launched MMO, needs considerable polish, and will be worth re-investigating in about six months.

See? Not exactly a breathtaking post, and honestly there’s not a whole lot more I would bother adding to that summary. If anything I’d spend more time crucifying the player base for never shutting the hell up about WoW – the spam they generated was infinitely worse than any of the gold selling spam I’d get blasted with at login. But there’s really not a whole lot else to write about.

It’s something that didn’t really come into focus for me until today, when I was discussing Modern Warfare 2 with a few friends of mine. Now, to be fair, I played MW1 long after its hay day and really only took part in the single player offering. It was entertaining, but not something I was willing to pay $60 to continue. I bought MW2 for the multi-player. That’s an odd choice for me, but since my entire Xbox Friends list was populated by nothing but hordes of people playing the damn game, I decided I was willing to give it a shot.

Just quickly, to address the single player in MW2? More of the same. Really. And if you liked MW1, that’s great. If you didn’t, don’t bother. The whole “shooting civilians” controversy is exactly that. A controversy. It’s shock value that doesn’t even feel shocking from a single player scenario. It was added to the game to drive up sales via free media caterwauling, and in that respect it worked brilliantly. In a post-GTA gaming world, though, it’s borderline passe. And that’s about as much as I care about the single player campaign.

I don’t even feel like I have as much to say about it as I did about Aion. Upgrading the guns and gaining access to new weapons is primarily what keeps me playing. The perks are well thought out and there is no one “best combination” though most playstyles favor a few of them. There is a very distinct assault rifle barrier – the M16 is an insanely well balanced weapon and you’ll find very few players above level 40 using any other rifle. Though it’s not cripplingly unfair to the point of requiring adjustment. Other than my lament of the game lacking an inherent cover system, ala Gabe, there’s really not much else for me to say about this Most Important Title Ever in modern gaming.

At least, I didn’t think so. And then today, in a completely off-the-cuff manner, I hit on what has been bothering me about MW2 so very much. This does not feel like a game that came out ten years after Counter-Strike.

Now, obviously I’m not talking about the graphics. The engine is robust and expressive in all of the ways that it needs to be. No one is going to confuse MW2’s visuals with a multiplayer mod for the original Half-Life engine. And there are obviously plenty of other items that add to the realism of the game. The lack of bunny-hopping jerks comes to mind. The more refined weapons selection. Sprinting. Character progression. The inclusion of grenades that aren’t their own weaponry class. Auto-restoring health.

I’m not saying the games are identical by any stretch. What I am saying is that Modern Warfare 2 is emblematic of its genre, and it doesn’t feel like a decade of advancements over Counter-Strike – a game which came to market from a pair of independent game developers. The movement still feels like it’s being played out on a huge checkerboard grid. The maps are still designed to reward camping, blindsiding and AWP-style sniping. And hell, I’d call the melee in MW2 a huge step backwards. The bulk of what makes MW2 superior to its ten-years-apart ancestor could be patched into the original Half-Life mod quite easily. And honestly, I have a problem with that.

That thought led me back to my idea of reviewing Aion. What is there to say, really? Haven’t I written this sort of review a dozen times? And haven’t you read it a hundred more? Understand that I am not impugning the quality of either of these games but rather their pedigree. They add new features, certainly. But neither address the core problems with their genres. And they’re not alone in this fault – they’re just the most obvious and high profile examples available to me right now.

Most of what makes MMOs “not fun” is present in Aion. Most of what makes FPSs “not fun” is present in MW2. Ten years of the best minds in game design hammering away at these genres has done little more than offer a series of increasingly pretty distractions from these facts. In the end, my choice of what game to buy (and certainly what game to play) is largely dictated by the popularity of the title itself. It’s a matter of which company is selling my friends back to me. Admittedly, that’s good news for MW2 – and bad news for Aion. Unfortunately, it’s also bad news for all of us.

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Batman’s Creed

Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

A little while after Batman: Arkham Asylum came out, there was a tidbit from the developers about how the original incarnation of the combat engine worked like a rhythm game. Most of the articles, blogs and comments I read about that throw away line were full of scoff and ASCII inspired eye rolls. Eventually someone would make a “Punching Hero” joke, and everyone moved on with their days.

I had a different reaction to that piece of information. Because I had always considered the combat in Arkham Asylum to be a rhythm game. The absence of digital frets or huge plastic acccessories be damned – it’s a rhythm game. Your default strum is the X key. It’s your basic attack. You press this at an even, steady interval to build your combo. Variations include blocks, grabs, throws, dodges, batarangs, cape swipes, and target shifts. In each of these examples, extra buttons are pressed either in combination with or as a substitution for the basic attack (or strum), but if you’re keeping up your combo, you’re keeping up the rhythm.

The entire combat system in Arkham, which allows the player to be completely overpowering against a given opponent while still maintaining a sense of vulnerability and danger when faced with multiple opponents, is absolutely brilliant. And whether you played it like a rhythm game or like a button masher (in which case you probably never really racked up any serious combos), the combat system that Rocksteady created managed to simultaneously work as a gameplay mechanic and stay absolutely true to its source material. It plays the way Batman would behave.

I’ve been thinking about Akrham Asylum quite a bit lately as I played through Assassin’s Creed II. This is partially the fault of one of my good friends, long ago, referring to the first Assassin’s Creed as “Medieval Batman”. And while there are obvious differences (such as the obvious violation of Batman’s one rule), there is also a lot of validity to that comparison. Both Altair and Batman are methodical and calculating. They are planners and investigators, studying and researching their foes to formulate the best possible plan of attack. They use gadgets and technology to gain the upper hand despite overwhelming odds. The comparison could roll for paragraphs, but you get the general idea.

And Batman not withstanding, Assassin’s Creed II is a very good game. It is an improvement on its predecessor in virtually every way. In fact, it almost feels like Ubisoft sat down, watched Yahtzee tear their original game to shreds a few thousand times, and used that review as a blueprint for how to improve the sequel.

Gone is the tedious need to crawl at a snail’s pace whenever you are within ten square blocks of a city guard. Gone also are the annoying beggar ladies and lepers that are free to shove you around into said guards, who will then attempt to stab you. Gone also are the obnoxious and pointless riding sequences between towns. Ditto on the ten minute conversations with people you’ve recently stabbed in the neck (those sequences still exist, are simply much shorter, and are more enjoyable to watch). Gone also are the constant interruptions where you warp out of your DNA flashback and are forced to wander around as Desmond for a few minutes a pop.

Instead, Ubisoft has added a much more fluid story progression, which makes the game feel a lot less like just a series of missions and actually ties the in-game events together nicely. They’ve also included some very interesting back story puzzles – and make no mistake, they are actual puzzles whose difficulty range from “Obviously Solvable” to “Tricky” and occasionally launch right into “There are seven thousand combinations, I’ll just try them all!” They also added a very interesting “dungeon” concept to the game. Set, closed off areas with strategically placed guards and obstacles that must be navigated and exist outside the world proper – almost like an MMO instance. I found these to be quite a bit of fun, and wanted more of that kind of content. I have no doubt that Ubisoft will endeavor to sell me more of these dungeons later on via DLC, and I’ll consider buying them depending on the price point.

The combat is better than it was in Assassin’s Creed, though I still feel like this is one of the roughest areas of the game. You’re afforded a whole arsenal of weapons, as well as the ability to steal weapons from your opponents. And yet I handled 95% of the combat either by sword-hacking my opponents down or walking up behind them while they were busy and wrist-blading them in the chest. Just about the only time I used any other technique was when I was faced with an enemy with a spear, at which point I would steal his weapon, spear him in the chest, and then continue to sword-hack my way through the angry mob.

There are also some things that they added that really don’t strike a chord with me at all. There’s an economic system in the game – just barely. If you can skate through the low difficulty of the first mission or two just investing your cash back into your villa, you’ll be so flush with gold for the rest of the game that the biggest financial problem you’ll have is having to constantly go back to town to pick up all your extra cash. I understand what they thought they were doing, I just don’t think they struck the proper balance. There’s also a side quest to collect 100 MacGuffins spread out across four or five cities which don’t appear on the map, are small enough to hide anywhere, and offer almost no reward. So screw that. And finally there is the main character – who I never really connected with. Despite him having more development, more story, more supporting characters and more motivation, I really couldn’t be bothered to care about Ezio in the same way that I grew fond of Altair.

In a vacuum, with only Assassin’s Creed to compare its sequel to, AC2 is a direct improvement in every possible way. The repetitive nature of the investigations is either gone or very well hidden by the story, the towns are designed in much more interesting ways (Venice’s waterways do very interesting things to the map, although deep in my heart I feel that the setting and period of AC1 is more appropriate for the story being told) and your exploration of them isn’t quite as gated. The game contains more characters, more motivation, and some pretty well done voice acting even if it does feel like a crash course in Tourist Italian.

But the title doesn’t exist in a vacuum. And when I mentioned the post-Arkham world of gaming a little while ago, I meant it. Arkham Asylum set an insanely high bar because it took just about every gaming trope we’ve come to expect over the past fifteen-odd years and not only handled them all brilliantly, but managed to weave that brilliance into the fabric of a pre-existing world and cast of characters in a way that felt effortless. Even the stealth “predator” sequences in Arkham leave me feeling more like an assassin than the very best sequences in AC2.

Assassin’s Creed II is a very capable game, and if you were willing to play AC1 to its conclusion, you’ll find plenty to enjoy in its sequel. But I didn’t get that same  “Renaissance Batman” rush from AC2. It surpasses its predecessor, but it fails to surpass its competition. Is it worth $60? Yes, absolutely. But only if you haven’t already dropped $60 on Arkham.

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