Sinister Soups Serving Musings On Game Development and Play

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
18Jan/102

I Hated Mass Effect… And I Will Buy Mass Effect 2

Okay, so I didn't hate Mass Effect, but I did have a lot of problems with it; enough problems, in fact, that I never finished it, and it left a rather foul taste in my mouth (I like sour things too much to use the usual expression).

At the time, I was worried that Bioware had completely lost their touch, and one of the last great cRPG makers would now fade into obscurity, leaving nothing but a wasteland of dumbed-down, twitchy action RPGs where once there was a rich bounty of sprawlingintelligent, tactically satisfying games for me to gorge myself on.

Thankfully, my worries were alleviated when Bioware went on to release my favorite game of 2009, which is actually one of the best RPGs I'd played in a decade, let alone just last year.

Now, Mass Effect 2 looms just over the horizon, and to celebrate this fact, I present to you: what I hated about Mass Effect, and why I will buy the sequel anyway.

Things I Hated About Mass Effect

The Combat

In battle, Mass Effect was a third-person shooter built on the Unreal Engine. That means that its closest analog would be Gears of War, and therefore it makes sense that it felt like a really crappy version of Gears of War, with a terrible cover system, impotent weapons, and boring levels. I'm not very good at shooters on a console, I much prefer mouse and keyboard, but I always enjoyed Gears of War because it did just about everything right: an awesome, tactile cover system, big, easy to hit enemies, and a very enjoyable cooperative experience.

Mass Effect had none of these things, and the RPG trappings applied on top of a weak Gears of War clone only hurt the experience more, by making you very ineffective at shooting until you leveled up a skill, and giving you a bunch of magic (I mean... biotic) powers that were a pain to use and left you exposed out of cover while you cast them.

This is a game where even though you could go into "combat mode" by simply aiming or shooting your weapon with either trigger, they still wasted a face button (X, to be exact) on "entering combat mode" and another (B) on "exiting combat mode." In the meantime, you could only bind one spell or ability for quick use, and had to use a radial menu to use any others. Idiocy.

The "Exploration"

Most RPGs feature a point where the world "opens up" and you are free to explore, and do the rest of story in a semi-arbitrary order. Certainly, all recent Bioware titles follow this model by at one point opening up a handful of story locations which you can visit in any order, but must clear if you want to beat the game.

Mass Effect also has this point, and on top of the couple of planets you have to visit to finish the main quest, they give you a Galactic Map with a whole ton of planets you can choose to visit and explore, or skip entirely.

I am a completionist (meaning I want to do everything in a game, never mind that I barely ever keep it up long enough to beat the game itself), and if you read my post titled Why We Play, you'll note that one of my main motivators in playing a game is seeing new content, so there was never any doubt that I would visit all of these optional planets and see what they have to offer. That is exactly what I did, and having visited every single side-planet in the game, I can tell you that these planets have less than nothing to offer.

These are empty, lifeless stretches of terrain, with slightly different textures and environmental effects, and you drive your bouncy, stupid space-car around a square mile or so before finding some scrap metal or killing a few generic enemies, and then returning to your spaceship disappointed. I tried to explore each of these planets fully, which took a lot of time, and gave me neither tangible nor emotional rewards.

By the time I was done with this exercise in self-loathing, I was so sick of the game that I put it down and never picked it back up again.

The Dialogue System

Mass Effect introduced an "innovative" dialogue system where your fully-voiced character would act out lines that you chose based on a short blurb. For instance, your choice as the player might say simply: "Geth?" while your character's dialogue would be a line about how "the Geth haven't been seen outside of the Veil in 200 years!" This is kind of cool, in that it establishes that your character isn't an idiot, and actually knows about what's going on in the world, but it's also not all that innovative, as it's merely a way to obfuscate your choices in the more traditional dialogue system where you would choose the exact sentence your character would be saying.

Furthermore, this system was undermined by the simplistic Paragon/Renegade mechanic in the game, which was just another way of dressing up the usual boring morality systems in these games which largely consist of choices like "Pay for the child's college education" or "Murder his parents, burn down his house, and sell him into slavery."

Okay, I exaggerate, no games these days have the balls to let you sell anyone into slavery. Sorry about that.

So the dialogue choices weren't any more compelling than previous games, and since you chose them by moving your analog stick to one of 6 positions on a circle, they even made your choices more obvious and straightforward by always putting the Paragon choices on the top half of the circle, and the Renegade choices on the bottom.

Now granted, it annoys me that anyone called Mass Effect's dialogue system revolutionary (and boy did they), but although it's not innovative at all, it wouldn't bother me enough to list here if not for one glaring fatal flaw that turned it from boring to infuriating. Your choices in conversation would show up before a person finished speaking, but it would often still be pretty late into their voice-over. By then, I had already finished reading what they were saying, and since I didn't care to keep listening to them talk, I wanted to make my choice and move the conversation along. Sometimes, the choices would come up just in time, but other times it wasn't soon enough for me, or there was another "page" of dialogue they had to go through before the choices came up.

Naturally, like all RPGs with a lot of dialogue, there was an option to skip ahead. Hitting the X button made the next "page" of dialogue begin, and if it was the last one the character had to say before choices came up, pressing X would make them come up immediately. Unfortunately, hitting X inexplicably also selected a choice if the list of choices was already up, and since they showed up on their own sometime near the end of the character's speech, there were a ton of times when I would hit X to skip to the choices just as they were coming up, and accidentally choose something I didn't want to, usually the choice to end the conversation. This was a big deal because a number of NPCs wouldn't talk to you again, or at least not about the same subjects, and I would be missing out on something deeply important to me: story, lore, and dialogue.

This is terrible, idiotic UI design, and the single thing in the game that made me burst into rage while playing it. I love RPGs with deep dialogue trees, and I enjoy picking exactly what my character has to say, and how she acts. Mass Effect already denied me the latter, by obfuscating my choices, and then proceeded to make it hard for me to choose which choice I wanted just because I have a decent reading level and don't want to listen to voice acting for something I read 5 seconds ago.

In what world does making the button for "skip dialogue" also choose dialogue choices seem like a good idea? This is basic stuff, people.

Why I Will Buy Mass Effect 2

Tom Chick has an interview with Casey Hudson of Bioware over at Fidgit, and they talk about some of the changes that the team have made in Mass Effect 2 to deal with criticisms over the first game. I had already hoped that my complaints above would be addressed, and this interview gives me hope that my hopes will not be shattered next week. Give the article a read, it's good stuff.

So, why will I buy Mass Effect 2?

The Lore

The one aspect of Mass Effect that I though was superlative was the world created by the writers at Bioware. Mass Effect was the first Bioware game to include a Codex, an in-game encyclopedia of game lore, which detailed even the tiniest and most mundane of details about the Galaxy depicted. Being an original IP, I was incredibly impressed with Bioware's world-building, and there were times when I kept playing just to find out a little bit more about this alien race, or that speculative technology, or some facet of future-Earth's history.

This universe created by Bioware kept me going even when the rest of their game did its best to make me stop, and I can't wait to see what they do with it in a good game. Hopefully Mass Effect 2 will be a good game.

No More Empty Planets

I had already assumed that Bioware would not make this horrible mistake again, but the interview above pretty much confirms that. Whereas the first game had a bouncy space-buggy and empty planets, it looks like Bioware took this criticism to heart and identified that people wanted to explore cool unique planets, not generic wastelands. And to this end, Casey says:

We wanted to make sure to better fulfill that fantasy, so we took the opposite approach on this game. Instead of building those expanded universe pieces out of lighter content, we took the opposite approach. Everything you discover up there really needs to be a unique stretch of gameplay, or a unique storyline. Something different. Something exotic that you couldn't otherwise do in the main game.

Bingo! That's exactly what exploring a planet should be like. Let's hope that they delivered on this aspect, and I for one will be a happy camper.

Improved Combat

If Mass Effect is going to remain a shooter, it should at least be a competent one. From the interview and other sources I've seen, it sounds like they've done a lot of work on that aspect, which makes me pleased. While I'd still prefer a more traditional RPG combat system (and in my dreams, a turn-based one), I can hopefully at least take some joy out of the combat sections in the new game, if they are more competently executed.

One other thing to point out here is this line from the interview:

But not only that, the power screen allows you to map the powers to the controller.

Hey look! Another of my complaints above addressed. Good work Bioware! I guess there are some sane people working on this franchise after all.

Let's hope that at least one of them noticed how stupid it is to let you skip dialogue and select dialogue choices with the same button.

In Preparation

I'll be getting Mass Effect 2 next week, and I'll be able to report if I hate it any less than the original. In the meantime, I've decided to replay Mass Effect, and maybe beat it this time, so that I know where the story's picking up, and so that I can compare them more closely.

So far, my new playthrough is going pretty well. I still hate the stupid way you can skip out of conversations, and I still hate the combat system, though I've decided to take it easy and set the game to the casual difficulty, so while the combat is still clunky, at least it's not frustrating.

Filed under: Gameplay, Games 2 Comments
14Jan/102

First Impressions: Darksiders

Darksiders is a new game that's been getting some buzz lately, as the kids say. It's been compared favorably with the Zelda series, which is a pretty impressive feat, considering that barely anyone imitates the Zelda formula successfully.

There's been some drama about the art style, which I won't go into, but I will say that I personally quite like it. It's stylized, and kind of cartoony, which I appreciate because I think graphics with style and a distinct character are better than attempts at photorealism, which often end up feeling sterile and wrong. However, I feel it's pretty safe to say that if you don't like the graphics in WoW, you won't like them here either, and should consider steering away if that's the sort of thing that can ruin your experience.

The gameplay in Darksiders is indeed reminiscent of Zelda, and the game doesn't try to mask its heritage. I haven't gotten very far yet and I've already found a "shard of lifestone" which is functionally very similar to pieces of heart in Zelda. I've also noticed that the equivalent of health potions require the equivalent of bottles to hold them, another clear Zelda reference. Just like Zelda, Darksiders is a 3rd-person action adventure game with some RPG flavor: an inventory of tools and weapons unlocked over time, an upgradable sword, and other such things.

Unlike Zelda, the game is considerably more combat-oriented, with combo moves for your sword and other weapons, not unlike a 3D action game like God of War. You also fight a lot more enemies, and bigger groups than the typical Zelda game, while your health is a traditional health bar, albeit using Zelda's heart system to represent additional health bars you have to go through before you die. Initially, I didn't like the combat very much. I wasn't very good at it, and it didn't feel very exciting or innovative, and fighting swarms of enemies was not as satisfying as the smaller groups in Zelda, where rolling around and getting good strikes on enemies let you stay unharmed and feel like a skilled swordsman.

I also miss Link's shield, something I'd never much thought about before, but Link's shield in the 3D Zelda games is incredibly well implemented, and very helpful. Not having one here was something I immediately noticed, and missed. War (your character, one of the Four Horsemen) does have the ability to block, but he still takes damage when he does it, and it feels weak compared to Link's defensive ability.

Despite my initial apathy towards the combat, something happened after I played the game for a while. Not only did I get a lot better at fighting enemies, but I also came to really appreciate a cool mechanic that makes the game somewhat unique. Any time an enemy gets below a certain amount of health, a big B button prompt shows up over its head. If the enemy is far away, it is grayed out, but if it's fairly close, you can hit B to instantly finish off the enemy with a cool custom animation. The benefit of this is that when you're fighting a big group of guys, you can't really afford to focus on one at a time, or the others will get behind you and hit you. Instead, I found that I had to keep the locations of enemies in mind and chain my attacks in different directions to keep people at bay. If you play this way, you will whiddle down many enemies' health, and soon you may see two or three with the prompts over their heads. You can then chain your finishers, moving from one enemy to another, cleaning them up, which is not only very satisfying, but also tactically useful.

The other benefit of this system, is that chains of attacks often knock enemies back and take them out of the fight for a little bit. Without this finisher mechanic, it would be prudent to follow them and finish them off, since they can come back and be a nuisance if you focus on something else. However, with the finisher mechanic, I can safely devote my attention to the rest of the group, and when the enemy I knocked away comes back, I can instantly dispatch it with a single tap of the B button, without it diverting my attention from whatever I'm doing.

So, it's a pretty cool mechanic, and once you learn how to use it effectively, it can be immensely satisfying.

I'm not that far into the game yet, so as of right now it's one of the more interesting aspects I've found. I'm hoping the game continues to hold up, though I'm a little worried if the setting can keep my interest. It's a post-apocalyptic world, which I'm usually very fond of, but in this case it's a bit too literal for my taste, and I worry that the areas I have to visit will all be too similar to keep me going. Part of Zelda's appeal are the colorful, scenic locales you visit over the course of your adventure, from forests to towns to deserts. Darksiders seems to be set entirely in a post-apocalyptic city, although I can already tell that they're making an effort to make unique locales within that city.

We'll see how that goes, if I keep playing, I'll keep posting about it, particularly if I find any other unique mechanics that catch my interest. As of right now, I can recommend it as a competent Zelda clone with an interesting aesthetic, which may not appeal to you, so you should check out some screens or videos ahead of time.

Filed under: Gameplay, Games 2 Comments
9Jan/105

Why We Play

Why do we play games?

Okay, a stupid question, and a potentially inauspicious start for a new blog, I know.

But bear with me here, because I'm not asking why games in general are played. I think we can all agree that people play games to be entertained, and to pass time enjoyably. My question though, is what is it specifically about the games that you play, that makes them enjoyable to you.

This is a relevant question because different people have wildly different tastes in games, and they seek out the games they do because those games provide the specific stimuli that they want.

So I've been thinking about why I play, and I've come up with different reasons for different sorts of games. I've also realized that an equally or more interesting question is the opposite: "What is not a reason that you play games?" I'm going to start with the latter question, because I think it more clearly contrasts what different people want from games when you consider what they don't care about.

So, what are not reasons why I play games?

Challenge

With few exceptions, I don't play games to be challenged. I don't care if a game is easy, or even trivial, so long as it is a lot of fun to interact with. That's not to say that I can't enjoy a challenge, or that I don't enjoy overcoming obstacles. One of my favorite things in a game is a strong tactical component, where your decisions matter, and efficient use of the resources at your disposal is crucial to victory.

My point is simply that while some people dislike games when they are "too easy," I do not. I can enjoy a game even if it does not pose a challenge to me, though the opposite is not always true, and a game that is very difficult is not a game I am likely to play for very long unless it's truly exceptional, because I do not play games to be frustrated.

Competition

I don't like to play against other people. I don't like beating others, because I actually tend to feel bad for them, like I'm "ruining" their game; and I don't like being beaten by others, because I tend to get annoyed with myself. I do play against people sometimes, of course, in certain first person shooters and strategy games, but if I do, it's almost always in a team-based scenario. The cooperative aspect of working together with my teammates counteracts the fact that I'm playing against someone else, but it is still something I do rarely.

On the topic of competition, and to help illustrate how differently we view what's important in a game, a friend of mine recently became obsessed with Trials HD on the Xbox 360. The thing is, he doesn't actually like the gameplay all that much, but because the game compares his scores to the people on his friends list, and shows him how far ahead they are in any challenge, he's decided that he has to outdo all of them. And so, he replays the same levels over and over, until he has bested every single person on his friends list.

Now, I'm not saying that his approach is wrong, just that it would never occur to me to set a goal like that for myself, because competition is not something I look for in a game, while to him it's literally the only reason to play this game.

And what are some reasons I do play games?

Fun Gameplay

This one is a no-brainer. A game with fun mechanics is simply a joy to play, and gets to the core of why we play games, as I said at the start of this post.

Fun gameplay on its own is a huge draw for me, even if that play doesn't have much of a point or goal. At that point a game becomes a toy of sorts, and I think there is a lot of value in being able to just have fun using systems given you. A good example in my case is a game like the first Assassin's Creed. A game with too little content (see below) where the tasks given to you become stale very quickly, and after a point, never really give you very good incentive to keep doing them.

However, I found climbing around in that game exhilarating. The most fun I had in the whole game was just running across rooftops, scaling buildings with ease, and finding great views to enjoy. The game became a climbing toy for me, which makes sense because I have a bit of an obsession with open world games with full freedom of movement and exploration. In fact this very obsession made me ultimately disenchanted with GTA IV (which is a far better game overall than the first Assassin's Creed) simply because I couldn't easily explore the vertical heights of the city; and if I did somehow get on top of a building, I had no way to safely get down because the game didn't have parachutes, unlike its predecessor: San Andreas.

Content

One of the biggest reasons I play games, and the only reason why I would finish a game, is to see what content it has to offer. By content, I mean anything that is not immediately available to you at the start of the game. This can include a large open world to explore, new art to see, cool level designs or enemies, even fresh game mechanics, and above all story.

A good story has the greatest potential to keep me going after the gameplay of a game has become familiar or even stale, and the reason why is fairly obvious: because I want to see what happens. Maybe I have come to care about the characters or the world, and I want to see and influence their fate. If I feel like I have actual choices with consequences, and can actually influence what content it is I see, then that's even better.

In this way, story and other gradually revealed content (and this can include more advanced game mechanics that become available later in the game) serve as the carrot that pulls me along and makes me stay with the game. Without this carrot, I tend to lose interest even in good games after a while, partly because there are always more games to try, and I feel intensely curious (and almost dutibound) to play every game I can.

To Create

I love games that let me build things. The biggest strength of video games is that they let you do things you can't do in real life, and this includes the ability to create on a scale you never could otherwise.

Whether it's building an ideal city in the Sim City series, or a sprawling empire in the Civilization games, I am drawn to games that let me play architect to some physical or societal system that I can't affect in real life. There is a great sense of accomplishment to building up your creation, and it goes hand in hand with the next reason why I play games...

To See Numbers Go Up

It may sound silly, but I love to see numbers go up. Just like the feeling of accomplishment you feel when your city becomes a sprawling, self-sufficient metropolis, or your empire spans an entire continent, seeing a character you created advance and become more and more badass is a great feeling, and one I seek out all the time.

Playing an RPG, I love optimizing my characters to be as powerful as they can be. I love seeing their levels go up, their attributes increase, new skills get unlocked.

The RPG is probably my favorite broad genre of game, and if you consider the previous things I listed as being important to me in a game, it makes perfect sense why, and why seeing numbers go up is so pleasing to me:

  • When an RPG character's numbers go up, that character unlocks new potential and new abilities, in other words, fresh content.
  • New abilities and a stronger character helps create and maintain fun gameplay, as I can now use new strategies, and overcome new obstacles.
  • The character is growing, being built up and shaped by me into something unique and powerful
To Work Together Towards a Common Goal

The last thing on my list is a little different from the rest, because it has to do specifically with multiplayer games. As I said earlier, I have no desire to play multiplayer games competitively, but I absolutely love working together with a friend in an online game. It's something I've been trying for years, with mixed success, since robust cooperative experiences have only recently become common, with things like the excellent team play of Civilization 4, Left4Dead, or Horde mode in Gears of War 2.

I also used to play WoW. In fact, I used to play it a lot.

I was in a raiding guild for over a year, and I was the raid leader for most of that. At the time, working together with a group of people that I had come to know and regard as friends was an amazing feeling. A huge group of us would come together, and in between the witty banter and hilarious inside jokes, we would fight against incredibly powerful foes, and come out on top. There is a reason why WoW is such a hugely addictive game for some people, and it's because the chance to accomplish something epic with a tightly knit group of friends does not often present itself in real life.

In smaller scale games, cooperative play is still a great deal of fun, because there is a satisfaction in being able to help your friends, and have them help you, and it's also a great way to keep in touch with people you can no longer see regularly in real life.

Wow, this turned out long

Sorry about that, but I hope you found my reasons for playing games interesting, if only for the ways in which they differ from your own.

How about you, then?

What is it in a game that makes you play it, and what sort of things do you not care about at all?

Filed under: Gameplay, Games 5 Comments