Sinister Soups Serving Musings On Game Development and Play

25Feb/100

Re-RPGing Mass Effect 2

This should be my last post about ME2, I feel like I've said most of what I have to say about it at this point, but I did want to share my thoughts on some aspects of the game that I feel Bioware simplified too much.

The one thing I would bring back from the original Mass Effect is the inventory system. Mass Effect 2 essentially doesn't have an inventory, and instead periodically awards you pieces of armor for different body parts, and a very limited number of new weapons that are pretty much just obvious replacements for your starting guns.

While customizing your armor is neat, it takes away the unique aspects of different suits of armor, instead having each little piece give a small bonus to HP, or Shields, or Biotic Damage. It also takes away armor classes, which means that no matter what character class you play, you'll always have pretty similar protection, rather than the light, medium, or heavy protection afforded by different armors in the first game.

Loot is an important part of the character improvement you expect in an RPG, and if done right, it doesn't have to be the mess it was in the original game.

Less Is More

A revised inventory system should avoid duplicates. In the original game, you would end up with 10 Phoenix IV armors, for instance, or 20 Toxic Rounds VI weapons mods. I would bring back armor, weapons, and weapon mods as items, but I would only let you get one of each type.

If you acquired, say, the Phoenix Light Armor Mark I, you would never find another such suit, nor would you find Phoenix Light Armor Mark II or any other upgrades. Instead, these would literally be upgrades, so that if you really liked the sort of stats that the Phoenix Light Armor emphasized, you would find schematics to upgrade it to Mark II, Mark III, etc.

In this way, you wouldn't end up with a crowded inventory, because each type of item would only take up one slot, but each item could also have cool unique properties that would make you want to upgrade it if it was your tool of choice. Maybe the Phoenix Light Armor can bring you back from the brink of death one time in a firefight (via magical biotic adrenaline or whatever), and has an especially good biotic defense. If that appeals to you, you would devote your resources to upgrading that model, and maybe let other models you have access to fall behind, at least until you get more resources or more upgrade schematics for those items.

The same would be true of weapons and weapon mods, you would only have one such item in your inventory, but that would just represent the fact that you can outfit your team with those items, not that you only have one instance of it. This way, you could still outfit multiple weapons with the same (upgraded) weapon mod, and give your team members upgraded weapons and armor (though more on this in a minute).

The key to this, of course, is that the game must have a wide variety of interesting armors, weapons, and mods for you to find. Bioware completely ignored this aspect in Mass Effect 2, maybe giving you one piece of mediocre "loot" per story mission, and not having enough variety in weapons that you would ever want to use the starting shotgun once you got the tier 2 version.

Instead, give us unique shotguns with stats that matter, whether that's firing rate, accuracy, knockback... look at Borderlands, there is a game that randomly generates weapons that feel fresh and unique without just being obvious linear upgrades.

Mass Effect 2 already allows you to upgrade things like overall shotgun damage, so instead, let us upgrade individual weapons and armor, so that we can customize our offense and defense how we choose, using whatever unique items we prefer.

The Party Problem

There is one aspect to this design that I am ambivalent about: whether you should be able to equip your teammates, like you could in the original game, or if you should only be able to impact it a little, like in the sequel.

On the one hand, equipping your party in the cool items you have found can be satisfying, and it lets you customize their performance. On the other, it also makes for a lot of unfun micromanagement.

In Mass Effect, I only used one team after a certain point, I never swapped out Liara or Wrex simply because unequipping the great stuff they were wearing and equipping it on someone else was too much of a hassle. Because you could only choose weapons for your companions in Mass Effect 2, however, and their armor never changed, I ended up using all sorts of different team makeups in the sequel, and I feel that this definitely added to my enjoyment of the game.

Being able to take whatever party members you like without having to worry about their equipment lets you have a lot more role-playing fun: bringing along characters you might want to learn about, or whose reactions you'd like to see to specific events.

I think that having the sort of inventory I described above, where you would only see one instance of a piece of armor, but could equip it to as many party members as you like, would make it so that you could still keep your whole roster's equipment up to date pretty easily, and so it wouldn't hurt to let you equip them.

Ultimately, though, I think this is the sort of thing that should come out in testing, and if it turned out to still stifle the ability to take any team you want, I wouldn't be opposed to just limiting the armor switching to your main character like Mass Effect 2 does.

Filed under: Game Design, Games No Comments
23Feb/100

Such Great Heights

Open world games have grown increasingly popular since Grand Theft Auto 3 was released. The huge, open city of that game, combined with a fully 3D perspective, really got people excited about the idea of go-anywhere, do-anything emergent gameplay. GTA 3 had missions, but they weren't really the point for most players, who instead spent their time wreaking havoc on the artificial populace of Liberty City.

Technology and time have marched on, and these days there are open world games of all sorts, not all confined to cities (though urban settings remain popular), the present day, or even our blue planet.

I'm a big fan of these sorts of games; I enjoy finding my own brand of fun within the confines of the world a game creates. I do have an annoyance with them, however, a pet peeve that makes me lose interest and often stop playing once it rears its ugly head.

The annoyance I speak of, is restriction on vertical freedom of movement.

Have fun getting down from there...

I don't know why, but when a game gives me an open world to explore, I demand to be able to explore every bit of it, and that includes the bits that are really, really high up. Nothing gives me a greater joy than being able to fly around and get on top of buildings, mountains, whatever precipitous projections the game can offer me.

Getting on top of things can be accomplished in many ways, depending on the game. In Assassin's Creed, I had a lot of fun climbing things, long after the game's core objectives lost my interest. In Crackdown, I never got tired of jumping my way up the sides of enormous skyscrapers.

Somehow, I want to be able to get on top of things, and then, I want to be able to jump off!

This is where many games fail me, however. Even a critically acclaimed game like GTA 4 lost my interest at one point, because while it let me steal helicopters and explore the airways of Liberty City, I would inevitably get stuck on top of some building, or jump out of my helicopter to cause a spectacular disaster, and I'd have no way to get down without dying.

There came a time, while I was playing GTA 4, where all I did was repeatedly steal choppers, cause mayhem, die, and steal more choppers. It was a lot of fun, but the constant return trips to steal more helicopters, and the constant deaths, eventually made me lose interest.

I couldn't understand why GTA 4 didn't have parachutes, or some other way to get down from heights safely. Even its predecessor, San Andreas, had included parachutes for intrepid daredevils such as myself, and it's worth noting that the DLC for GTA 4 did add them later on, but I didn't really have any desire to go back to the game and buy the DLC.

I think a parachute or a glider is the perfect companion in this sort of game. I love nothing more than to sail serenely over the landscape, surveying my stomping grounds from on high. A game that can give me vertical freedom, both in going up and getting down, is a game I can enjoy immensely, even if it has other flaws.

Now that's what I'm talking about!

Just Cause is a perfect example: a deeply flawed game, with boring core gameplay where you assault identical villages to liberate them, and iffy controls for driving and shooting.

And yet, I found a ton of fun to be had in Just Cause, because I could ignore all the missions and other distractions, and instead climb hills and mountains covered in lush jungle.

I could steal planes or helicopters and fly high into the sky. And above all, I could soar above the archipelago of the game on my parachute, snagging onto cars with my trusty grappling hook to stay in the air.

I wonder if I'm the only one who enjoys the freedom of open virtual air so much. What about you, gentle reader? Do you value vertical freedom in open world games? Are you ever frustrated by the limitations that games impose on you in the third dimension? Can you think of some games that are particularly good (or especially bad) about this?

Filed under: Gameplay, Games No Comments
18Feb/101

All I Have To Say Is… Civilization 5!

 

Civilization 5 exists! And it looks pretty!

I'm excited! So excited! Civilization 5 was announced today, with a release date of Fall 2010. I wasn't expecting to see a new Civilization game this year, since there haven't really been any rumors to that effect, so I guess they did a good job keeping it quiet.

I make no secret of the fact that Civilization 4 is one of my favorite games ever; in my opinion it took everything that the series had done up to that point and really distilled and refined the hell out of it:

  • It solidified the concepts of borders and culture, which had been added in Alpha Centauri and Civ 3, but hadn't been as fully integrated into the design as they should have been in those games.
  • It adopted and adapted Alpha Centauri's civic system, allowing greater and more satisfying customization of your society.
  • It even worked to resolve the problem of city spam in earlier games, where building tons of cities right next to each other was the optimal strategy, by making a smaller number of specialized cities the way to go, which is the way I had always wanted to play.
  • It had extensive modding support built in, which led to excellent fan modifications like the critically acclaimed Fall From Heaven II.
  • The design centered on a functional multiplayer from the very beginning, which ensured that it wasn't buggy and useless like it had been in some of the previous games.

Civilization 4 really is a gem, I still play it to this day, and play it online all the time with an old friend of mine.

With that in mind, I am really excited to hear about a new Civ game... but I'm also a little bit worried.

My primary concern is that the design of Civ 4 was spearheaded by Soren Johnson, whose blog you can see prominently linked to on the right there and whom I mention as a sort of inspiration of mine on my "about me" page. Soren Johnson no longer works for Firaxis however, he joined EA to work on Spore a few years back, and while I'm sure Firaxis has plenty of talented people, I would feel much more at ease about this new entry in the series if he were the mastermind behind it.

The only entry in the series since Civ 4, the console Civilization: Revolution, had some interesting ideas, but was also a much more simplified version of the game, and that was a game designed by Sid Meier himself! As far as I understand, Sid is now working on the Facebook "social networking" version of Civilization, so I assume some other promising designer is in charge of Civ 5. Whoever that is, I wish them luck, and hope they can pull off a really great followup to one of the greatest games ever.

Wild Speculation!

We don't really know much about the game at this point, the official site linked above doesn't really have any meaty details, and there are only three screenshots, though they look very pretty. However, I'm going to take the time to do some speculating on how the game will differ from Civ 4, based on those screenshots.

The biggest takeaway from the shots is definitely the fact that the game uses hexes instead of a square grid, a first for the Civ series! This may seem like a drastic change, but it really isn't; the previous game used a square grid, but since you could move freely on diagonals, it was really more of an octagonal grid in disguise.

From the screenshots, it looks like cities will still have a radius of two tiles that they can work, though now that will mean two hexes out, instead of the old "fat cross" setup of the previous games. I infer that that's how it will work from the city in the screenshot above, which seems to be working a forest hex south-east of the city center and one hex away from it.

Units look like they have a lot more soldiers in them, which might just be a stylistic decision to make them look more realistic, or they may be adapting the army mechanic from Civilization: Revolution, where you could merge several units of the same type to create a single army unit, combining all their strength together. If they did adapt the army mechanic, that would be a major change to how the PC game plays, and I'm not averse to it, since I thought that was one of the more interesting additions to the console version.

My last major takeaway from the screenshots is that there are still resources on the map (like horses and cows), and it looks like you can still claim them with an improvement like you could in Civ 4, so I'm hoping that goes largely unchanged from the last game. One thing I'm not clear on though is if you even can still build improvements, or if they've gone with the system from Revolution, where a square worked by a city looks like it's improved, but you can't actually build a farm on a hex, or a mine, or a windmill.

I really hope they haven't done away with improvements like they did in the console game. It may sound silly, but having a ton of improvements at my disposal, letting me modify my empire's territory as I see fit, was a key feature of earlier games for me. I loved developing my land and optimizing my cities to be as efficient as possible, more than even the diplomacy or war aspects. I was very pleased with the number of terrain improvements they added in Civ 4, somewhat reflecting the crazy terraforming possibilities in Alpha Centauri, like the borehole: a giant strip mine drilled down into the planet's crust.

So yes, it's really too early to tell exactly where they're going with this game, but we can see how wrong my speculation turns out to be in the months to come.

I really do hope they're not going the "massive simplification" route to make it more accessible, though. We PC gamers like our strategy titles to have plenty of juicy complexity, and it would be a shame if they failed to take the computer's strengths into account when making this game, and made it too much like the last console title.

Filed under: Game Design, Games 1 Comment
15Feb/100

An Update Mandate

I have come to realize that I need more structure in my life, specifically as far as this blog and other projects are concerned. In the interest of keeping this blog going, so that it does not fall by the wayside like it so easily could, I've decided that I'm going enforce an update mandate upon myself.

From this point on, I'm going to attempt to have a new post ready at least twice a week, tentatively every Monday and Thursday.

The days may change once in a while, and I certainly reserve the right to write more than two posts in any given week, but I will strive to keep up at least this minimum for the foreseeable future.

With that said, expect another post this Thursday, probably covering the changes I would make to Mass Effect 2 to make it a bit more RPGish.

I'm going to try to be my best, wish me luck!

Filed under: Notices No Comments
15Feb/102

Anecdotal Interface Fail

The original Mass Effect had massive interface issues. Pretty much every screen in that game had at least one glaring fatal flaw, something that these fantastic articles go into in-depth.

Mass Effect 2 fares better in this regard, though its complete lack of an inventory mitigates the need for UI significantly, which in turn makes it harder to screw up as royally as the first game.

Nonetheless, the game still managed at least one epic interface fail, and it's enough of a head scratcher that I felt obligated to share it here.

Mission Incomprehensible

One of Mass Effect 2's (mostly excellent) side missions involves stopping a couple of missiles from being launched, in order to save a colony.

Unfortunately, it turns out that you will only be able to stop one missile, and you must choose between saving the living area or the industrial area. If you save the living area, you will save thousands of lives, but they will need to be evacuated since the colony will no longer be able to sustain itself. If you save the industrial area, the colonists will die, but the colony will remain viable and can be resettled in no time.

Clearly, one of these is the "Renegade" choice and the other the "Paragon," and you can safely assume that the choice you make will have some sort of impact in Mass Effect 3 (though if the "impact" of the first game's choices on Mass Effect 2 is any indication, then all you'll get is a strongly worded e-mail).

Regardless, it's a fun mission, and having to make a big decision at the end is cool; what's not cool is the UI they cooked up to let you make that decision.

Here's how it works: you're presented with a typical list of two different choices Save the Colony or Save the Factories. It's a typical list, where you can use the D-pad to highlight one choice or the other. When you highlight a choice, the text on the right changes to explain the choice more closely, just in case you're not sure which one to highlight in order to get your desired result.

So that's pretty easy right? What could go wrong?

So, I highlighted the Save the Colony option, and hit A to confirm it.

Imagine my surprise when the mission summary told me that I had chosen to save the factories, sacrificing thousands of colonists.

Since that hadn't been my intention, I replayed the mission just so I could look at that screen again and try to figure out what I'd done wrong. I beat the mission, got to the choice, and everything was exactly as I'd thought, I'd even highlighted the correct choice in the list.

And then I glanced down at the context-sensitive buttons at the bottom of the screen, which you would expect to say something like:

A. Confirm
B. Cancel

Instead, the button prompt says this:

A. Save the Factories
B. Save the Colony

In other words, that list, the one where you can highlight either Save the Factories or Save the Colony? Yeah, it serves no purpose, and in fact, if you highlight a choice and then hit A to confirm it, like you would anywhere else in the game, you will choose to kill the colonists every time.

Wow. Just... wow.

Clearly they had no idea how they wanted to present this choice, and someone probably decided to change it at the last minute, instead bungling the whole thing. This is why it pays to have someone actually design the UI, Bioware.

I'm just saying.

Filed under: Game Design, Games 2 Comments
11Feb/102

Mixed Bag of Mass

I finished Mass Effect 2 this past weekend, though I've been putting off this post since I have some pretty mixed feelings about it.

I should start by saying that Mass Effect 2 is likely a better game overall than the original Mass Effect. It has a much more satisfying combat system, far fewer egregious face-palm design decisions, and it's a bigger, longer, and more mature effort than the original.

Somehow, despite all these things, I don't think I enjoyed the experience as much as I did the original game (the second time I tried playing it, at least), so let's see if I can explain my feelings on the subject.

Spectres of War

When I first talked about Mass Effect, I mentioned that it compared very poorly to Gears of War, the other third-person shooter based on the Unreal Engine. Mass Effect 2 does not suffer from this problem, it is a very capable shooter, perhaps too capable seeing as many of the RPG elements have been "streamlined" away. However, shooting does feel good, the cover system is far more intuitive, and battles now consist of prolonged but exhilarating engagements where your team and your enemies effectively use cover to stay safe, unlike the first game where the poor AI would lead to chaos as enemies charged you head-on and allies stood around shooting walls.

Despite a much lower number of abilities for your characters to invest in, the combat often feels more tactically interesting than it did in the first game. Enemies can now have defenses on top of their ordinary health bars, extra bars of Armor, or Shields, or Biotic Barriers. Each of these must be stripped from enemies before their primary health bar, and enemies can have more than one defense.

The fact that many biotic powers won't work on an enemy with a specific defense, and all power and weapons are particularly good at stripping one or two types of defenses, means that there is a much greater incentive to use all the weapons and powers at your disposal, unlike the first game where once you maxed out a weapon or power of choice, there was little reason to use the others.

It helps that there are now far fewer abilities to actually spend your skill points on when you level. Each ally only has three abilities to invest in, and one special ability unlocked if you do their loyalty quest. Your Shepard also only has about four abilities from his or her class, and can be customized around mid-game by adding one extra ability: any of your allies' special abilities that you have already unlocked.

I actually think that pretty much all the changes to the combat system and character classes are good. The first game had too many abilities, some of which were useless, and the classes all had overlapping abilities that made them feel bland. Now each class and each companion feels more or less unique, with very few sharing the same abilities, and the abilities themselves feel like they improve more substantially and change as you put points into them. I think every class will play very differently in this game.

Loot-Lite

Although I feel that streamlining combat was probably a good move, I think Bioware went too far with it as far as inventory is concerned. One of the key parts of an RPG is getting awesome stuff for your characters: loot, in other words, and Mass Effect 2 doesn't really massage that "Yay! New loot!" part of the brain.

You can find pieces of armor for your Shepard to wear, which does lend a nice bit of customization, but the fact that the pieces aren't very different, both in looks and utility, and the fact that there are no class restrictions means that you'll probably find one arrangement that you kinda like, and use it for any character you create.

Weapons don't really do it either, there are only two types of most weapons (two types of pistol, two types of assault rifle, etc.) though shotguns and sniper rifles also let you specialize into a third special version partway through the game.

Anyway, I've got a whole 'nother post in my head where I detail how I would fix this for Mass Effect 3 without creating the kind of mess that the original game had, so stay tuned for that.

Not Very Romantic

I don't like the way Bioware handled the transition from Mass Effect 1 to 2.

They tout how they load your choices from your Mass Effect save, and how your original decisions impact the sequel, but really, very few of those decisions matter at all. You'll meet some people you might not have killed, and you'll get e-mails from others, and dialogue will change appropriately based on what you did with the Council in the first game, but there is deliberately so little overlap between the casts and settings of these games, that those things never really feel significant.

This is particularly a shame as far as your allies from the first game are concerned. You'll see them again, sure, and you'll even get a couple into your party again, but if you had a romance in the first game, if you developed an attachment to whomever you got naked with in Mass Effect 1, you can rest assured that you'll be disappointed with who they have become in Mass Effect 2.

To make up for that, the game gives you a big cast of new allies to play with, and more of them are romanceable than ever before. Particularly, I found that you could have a relationship with quite a few of the aliens on your ship, which was interesting, if a little odd.

Don't get me wrong, I really like all the new characters introduced in this game, but it's still disappointing that you can't go be with your lover from the first game, and having new options is great and all, until you realize that once Mass Effect 3 comes around, you'll probably be seperated from them again, and forced to pick from yet another heroic harem.

Galactic Plastic Surgery

The universe has changed, and not necessarily for the better.

On the bright side it has, ironically, gotten darker. The world of Mass Effect 2 is not the naïve, idealistic universe of its predecessor, and the tone is reminiscent of the recent Battlestar Galactica remake. One new feature you won't find on the back of the box is swear words, which means that people in dire situations won't shy away from the casual "fuck" or "shit," and certain characters in particular are fond of expletive-ridden diatribes, which fits their personalities nicely.

I approve. That's how real people often express themselves, so it lends verisimilitude to the world.

On the not-so-bright side, I felt throughout that the transition from the first game's narrative to the second's was not smooth at all. The changes, additions, and revelations you encounter often felt jarring, and it never really felt like they'd planned for them when they wrote the first game. For example, in Mass Effect you encountered a xenophobic Human organization called Cerberus, and had to foil several of their plots and nasty experiments. In Mass Effect 2, not only do you find yourself working directly for Cerberus, but they try to retcon said experiments away as "rogue factions within Cerberus."

The fact that you work for Cerberus is actually brought about in a pretty convincing manner, and you do have the chance to treat them with hesitation and mistrust throughout the game, but the attempts to soften them up as an organization, to make it seem that maybe they were just mistunderstood really stuck out to me, and made me feel like Bioware didn't really know where they were going with this world.

An even more jarring example is the Collectors, the main antagonist race of the sequel. They were never mentioned in the first game, not even implied or foreshadowed, but in Mass Effect 2 there are some major revelations regarding these guys, the Reapers, and the Protheans, and while said revelations are interesting and potentially exciting, they never felt genuine because they came out of nowhere, and nothing in Mass Effect set them up.

These aren't the only examples either, a lot of the moments in Mass Effect 2 that should feel like big reveals, or epic twists, instead come off feeling contrived. I constantly felt like the writers' entire approach to the sequel consisted of "let's take something we established in the first game, and then say it was totally the opposite all along!" That sort of thing could work, if it had been foreshadowed properly in the first game, but since none of it was, it just ends up feeling like a cop out for shock value.

Final Thoughts

I had a strange experience with Mass Effect 2. As a game, it is far improved from its predecessor, but as a narrative and an overall experience, it largely left me cold after the first few hours.

In the original game, you were an agent of the Council, and it felt like the fates or not just humanity, but all the races, the Citadel, and all the civilized universe were at stake. The game had tons of memorable moments: from the many reveals about the Reapers towards the end, to really emotionally moving scenes with amazing orchestral scoring, like your induction into the Spectres or your speech to the crew of the Normandy when you first became its captain.

The end of the game was perhaps one of the most epic conclusions to a game ever: a massive assault on the Citadel, and fleets of ships from all the races fighting in space while you fight Saren in the Citadel Tower.

Nothing in Mass Effect 2 gave me the same feeling that those moments in Mass Effect did. While the game kept going on about the massive stakes, and how you were likely going on a suicide mission, it never felt genuine to me, and the ending didn't have nearly the same impact either.

Part of it might be that Mass Effect 2 tries to be a more personal game; it's all about Shepard, the Normandy, and your crew. There are no big fleet maneuvers, no real interactions with the Council, Alliance, or other authorities. For some reason though, it doesn't affect me the way the original did, and maybe that's just me, maybe Your Mileage May Vary.

Mass Effect 2 is also obviously the middle part of a trilogy, it tries to be a bridge between the original game and Mass Effect 3, so perhaps it's no wonder that the plot isn't ultimately as interesting and compelling as the original; second chapters tend to turn out that way. Hopefully Mass Effect 3 will bring some of that magic back, some of that epic feel of a galaxy united against a common threat, and in the meantime, Mass Effect 2 at least provides some seemingly substantial choices towards the end, that should make things interesting when you import your save into Mass Effect 3.

Filed under: Games 2 Comments
3Feb/100

Learning and the Art of Time Travel

Consider Achron: the world's first meta-time strategy game. It's a pretty crazy idea.

Many games these days implement time-rewind mechanics. It started with Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and the most recent examples are probably indie favorite Braid and racing behemoth Forza 3. But Achron is different, Achron doesn't just let you rewind time, it gives you a proper timeline, like a movie editor or music sequencer, and lets you skip around in time freely.

If an attack goes poorly, you can go back in time and change how it played out, or cancel it completely. You can also go into the future, build units and teleport them back into the past, which means you can use your army... and then build it.

Oh, did I mention the game has multiplayer? And that your enemy can do all these things as well?

But it would take too long for me to try to cover all the cool stuff going on in this game; instead, I'll let the developer do it in one of their awesome demo videos:

I think this kind of mechanic is really compelling, and I wouldn't be surprised to see a lot of games start embracing time travel as a true game mechanic. It offers so many gameplay possibilities, it's easy to grasp but hard to master, and it's an experience that only a video game can give you.

Where else in life can you experience what it'd be like to change the past? Or travel through time?

There's a lot of interest in Achron's engine too, the army would like to use it to teach causality and long-term effects, which brings me to the second half of this post.

Learning Through Failure

I've been reading a lot about difficulty and challenge in games lately, and one subject that comes up a lot is the idea of failure vs. punishment.

Failure, whether in a video game or in some task in the real world, has an awful lot of value. We learn through failure, or more accurately, we learn by analyzing our failure, making changes, and trying again. A key point to make is that the sooner we can try again after failing, the more quickly we learn, which shouldn't really surprise anyone. Are you more likely to learn from a failed attempt if you immediately try again, while your past methodology is fresh in your mind, or if you wait a week before your next attempt?

This is where punishment comes in. Punishment is where a game essentially piles extra baggage onto your failure, usually by making you lose progress, and forcing you to redo something you had already accomplished in order to try again.

The problem with punishment is that it makes it hard or impossible to learn from your mistakes, and quickly breeds frustration, which will make some people lose interest or give up entirely. If you have to run through 5 minutes of level every time you miss a specific tricky jump, you're not really learning very much from your failure. It takes too long for you to try again, and by the time you do, you no longer have a good idea of what you did wrong in the first place, making it harder to compensate.

I'm not the first to make this argument of course, and rather than rehash what others have said, I'm going to focus this post on the above in the context of Achron. If you'd like a more in-depth view on the subject of challenge vs. punishment, I definitely recommend you check out this wonderful post, as well Shamus Young's original take on the subject, which has spurred a lot of the conversation on this topic on other blogs I've read.

Real-time Failure Correction

So what makes Achron so exciting, besides a wholly new and original gameplay mechanic, which might actually become a lasting innovation to the genre, unlike more "innovations" thrown around these days?

Games that let you rewind time without punishing your failures already do a better job of teaching you how to improve, and preventing frustration, than traditional games where failure is a chore. Achron takes this to another level however, because not only can you rewind a single action, or a single mistake, but you can continually go back and tweak your strategy, learning from your mistakes in real time, and seeing how your corrections impact the ultimate outcome.

Not only that, but Achron is multiplayer, or at the very least, it has an AI opponent capable of impacting the timeline the same way you can. This means that you can not only learn from your mistakes, but from your enemy's mistakes as well. You can watch how your opponent modifies his past actions to account for changing situations, and you can continually respond in kind, in a sort of see-saw on enlightenment.

The potential for learning in a game like Achron is tremendous, and it should make for great gameplay as well, because not only does the time travel mechanic provide a completely unique experience and allow the development of insane strategies, but learning how to do something interesting is also fundamentally fun for most people.

Just consider how exhilarating a new game can be, when you're still bumbling along, learning the mechanics for the first time.

Of course, maybe it's too early to declare Achron a harbinger of the future of games. A lot depends on the execution, and the game won't officially be out until next year. However, preordering gets you access to beta builds, and since this game intrigues me so much, that is exactly what I have done.

I haven't had a chance to try it yet, but once I do, rest assured that I will let you know how their ambitious work is looking.

Filed under: Game Design, Games No Comments
2Feb/100

Get Out of My Brain!

I think I may have just found a game made especially for me. Someone reached into my brain and pulled out my deepest gameplay fantasies:

The game is called FLOTILLA, and it is a turn-based space combat game, with hotseat multiplayer and simulateous turn resolution. The way you control your ships is very similar to Homeworld, but while Homeworld was certainly a wonderful game, I can't wait to play a tactical turn-based version.

Another interesting point is that it's an XNA game, and will be released as an Xbox Live Indie Game as well as on the PC. I find that very encouraging, because XNA is my platform of choice for independent development, and seeing something this awesome coming from it is really great!

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