Formulaic

I am basically done with Subterrain. There is plenty of “game” left, but my completion of it is a forgone conclusion made evident by the full accounting of its remaining systems. In other words, it has become formulaic, and that formula has been solved – there are no possible surprises left. Much like many Civilization endgames, it is simply a matter of going through the remaining motions.

And ain’t nobody got time for that.

The whole situation got me thinking about the design of formulaic systems in gaming, and why designers lean on them so heavily. The only explanations I can come up with is either laziness or fear. There is probably a more legit reason out there, but I can’t imagine it, because it almost always makes the underlying game weaker, and why would you do that intentionally?

Let’s use the most common formula as an example: the four elements of Fire, Water, Air, and Earth. I have no particular idea why these elements exist in 99% of RPGs (and even non-RPGs) when the designers ensure that elements bring nothing to the table. Yes, some monsters are stronger against some elements and weaker to others. Congratulations, you have just optimized combat against the entire game’s monster lineup after playing a Nintendo game 20+ years ago. In practice, those elements are really just different colored numbers – they have no gameplay impact beyond exploiting arbitrary weaknesses.

Compare that with the way, say, Divinity: Original Sin plays out. There are still elements, and still strengths/weaknesses based on them, but those elements actually have secondary consequences. Having fire spells create a Damage over Time effects and Lightning stun people is pretty cliche, but there was a tertiary concern with interactions between the elements themselves, e.g. poison clouds exploding with fire, electricity stunning everyone standing in water, etc.

That is good, interesting design.

As I said before, I can only imagine that designers are either lazy or scared when they lean so hard on formulas. “Scared” in this context means potentially introducing an unbalanced aspect to the combat system. For example, Ice damage slowing the target is pretty cliche, but many designers don’t even go to that level because it’s possible that players could cheese certain encounters by slowing and kiting the boss around the room. But imagine a designer who looks at that possibility and then crafts a boss in which that strategy is basically required in order to succeed. That would be great… until you realize that all the other players might not have learned that spell/chosen that class/etc.

I’m not trying to imply that game design is easy, but… c’mon devs. Surprise us once in a while. Maybe don’t have a Fire/Water/Air/Earth Temple unlock mechanisms. Make the spells be something more than different colored damage numbers. Embrace asymmetry when it makes sense. Switch up the formula… until switching it up itself become formulaic. Then do something, anything else.

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Married

Hey, so… I’m getting married later today.

Don’t feel obligated to give me your well wishes, because honestly, I’m already pretty damn lucky. And I’m not just saying that because she occasionally reads these posts.

I started this blog back in December 2010. It had a different name and was hosted on a different provider, but the blog was me talking about what I was passionate about. At the time, that passion was making gold on the WoW AH. These days, my tastes have broadened a bit, but fundamentally the passion is the same. I have every expectation that that passion will continue on into the future.

That said… I am getting married. There may be posts next week, there may not be. Either way, you’re going to sit back and enjoy it – the posts, or the fact that I am too busy to write them.

Impressions: Subterrain

Subterrain is a poorly named, but surprisingly excellent indie-ish game that came as part of the April Humble Monthly bundle. It is essentially a top-down survival horror crafting game, minus any base-building. As someone with an interest in survival-type games, this one scratches the itch very well.

Subterrain_Zombie

Limited field of vision can lead to nasty surprises.

The premise is that you are a researcher on a Martian base who gets thrown in jail, and then the power goes out. For a week. You eventually escape the prison and work your way to Central Command, and try to piece together what happened and why there are infected zombies and other creatures running about.

I’ve spoken about Economy of Design before, and there’s a compelling, intuitive call to action in this game. Specifically, the complex’s powerplant is slowly grinding down. There is already too much damage to sustain power to every single zone, so you have to choose which zones to send power to, with the others getting no Oxygen or Heat (assuming their Oxygen and Heat generators are even online). As it turns out, the infection plaguing the colony spreads faster in cold, non-oxygen environments. As each zone gets more infected, more powerful enemies appear, and at 50+% infection a bunch of zombies appear in Central Command and try to destroy the generator. So there is a race to find materials and blueprints to craft replacement power plant cores to power more zones and slow down the infection.

You have to balance the running around implied above, with more mundane concerns like food, water, sleeping, and even toilet activities. Each zone you enter typically needs to have Oxygen/Heat generators repaired too, so you have to bring along your own temporary supply of both lest you suffocate/freeze while exploring. There are enemies too, of course, so having a good supply of weapons and healing supplies are a must.

All the while, the clock is ticking and the infection is spreading…

Subterrain_Forks

No, really, I was super excited about finding forks.

To be honest, despite the above, it’s difficult for me to say how much fun the game actually is. I’m certainly enjoying it thus far, as it pressing a lot of my buttons in terms of survival and crafting and planning shit out. Fighting enemies is pretty easy, and exploring becomes quicker once you realize that 99% of everything is shit not worth sorting through. To an extent, I hate how formulaic it gets in the mid-game, where I’m at. I’ve unlocked everything in Tier 1, for example, and now to get the Shotgun v2 and Improved Nightstick (etc) I have to unlock Engineering Software v2 and Research Software v2, both of which were found in the 5th floor of X location.

In the meantime, I’m spending my time playing this instead of Destiny 2 because I like collecting all the things regardless of the pointlessness of the activity.

Humble Destiny

The latest Humble Monthly bundle has Destiny 2 as an early unlock. I’ve been subscribing month-to-month for a while now, and this was a no-brainer month to pay early.

Destiny-2_Farm

Graphics = good

Destiny 2 is the much maligned sequel to a game that should have been ported over to the PC the first time around. I am well aware that the endgame sucks, and that the (short?) campaign really just serves as a vehicle for expensive, disappointing DLC. Oh, and they actually removed content from the base game when the first DLC came out. Classic Activision Blizzard. Still, $12 is $12, and I wanted to see this train-wreck for myself.

You know, as a member of the Press©.

First impressions? It is a staggeringly beautiful game. Skyboxes are skyboxes, but D2’s are great. The gunplay thus far as been as good as they say as well.

Destiny-2_Titan

Actual jumping requirements? Interesting…

Once out of the immediate tutorial area, I found the sort of free-roam mechanics rather interesting. The first mission had a recommend gearscore Power level of 30, and I only had 20 at the time, so I stuck around and randomly killed enemies with other strangers until enough loot dropped to take me over the finish line. There were periodic public events, so things didn’t take too long, but it was interesting seeing this sort of MMO-ish Public Quest mechanic in a FPS. I’m sure things get significantly less interesting once you’re no longer getting upgrades, but until then… wheee!

Regardless, I am still super early in the experience – or maybe not… heard the story is like 5-6 hours? – having just unlocked the free-roam areas on Titan. Not sure that I like the rock-paper-scissor style of weapons though. Yeah, it’s fine have energy weapons be better at breaking shields than kinetic weapons. But having energy weapons deal less damage to normal mobs than basically any kinetic weapon? That means I basically only have the one weapon to use 90% of the time. Also disappointed that fun stuff like shotguns are limited to the “power weapon” slot that competes with grenade launchers and such.

Whatever.

I’m basically treating this like a non-cel-shaded Borderlands, so I’ll enjoy the ride until I don’t.

Economy of Design

It’s amusing what can change in three years.

I am currently playing through The Banner Saga 2, which in pretty much all respects is The Banner Saga 1. Still running from the Dredge, still having people die off in blind choices, still have the same combat system. Except, this time, I actually really appreciate the latter.

BannerSaga2_Armor

No secret systems, which is bold

For those that don’t know, the combat system has two components: Strength and Armor. Strength acts as both your attack power and your HP. The formula for damage is simply Your Strength – Their Armor = Their Strength Loss. When attacking, you are given the option of either attacking their Strength or their Armor, with the latter being a set amount of damage based on a separate Armor-Break stat, instead of Strength.

Now, this system can snowball very quickly. Imagine two characters with 8 Armor and 12 Strength. The first person to attack will bring the other down to 8 Strength, which means they will only be able to deal 1 Strength damage in return. Then the first attacker will deal another 3 Strength damage, making any further Strength attacks from the defender take a -10% deflect penalty for each point of Armor above their Strength. Now, the defender could possibly choose to attack the first guy’s Armor instead, but that will only help in future turns… which he won’t live to see.

In any case, the battles are not 1v1 affairs. Turns take place in a round-robin manner: one of your characters take their action, then the AI takes one character’s actions, then your next character gets to move, and so on. Killing an enemy does not remove the AI’s turn – it simply moves the remaining AI units up in initiative. This can lead to incredibly dangerous scenarios if you end up leaving a powerful enemy alive, who gets to act every other turn while you’re stuck moving out-of-range units around. Thus, the superior strategy is actually to maim enemies rather than killing them (e.g. leave them with 1-2 Strength) so that the AI is stuck with weak attacks while you concentrate on maiming more combatants until you can mop the rest up.

Like I said before, this combat system often leads to snowball situations in which one of your characters getting pummeled early makes the latter half of the battle incredibly dicey. Still… the economy in design is brilliant, IMO. You can equip your characters with a special relic that might improve stats a bit, but the whole Strength & Armor deal is incredibly straight-forward. The game will helpfully tell you exactly how much damage an attack will cause, but you can eyeball the field and work it out yourself since there are really only two components. MMORPGs have to have a pile of random-ass stats in order to have room for item level-creep, but most other games do not. Hell, this combat system is so simple that I could imagine them making a board game out of it.

Oh, and another thing? The only currency in the game is Renown. Leveling up characters, purchasing food for your journey, and buying special relics all consume this one common currency. I found this incredibly frustrating in the first game, but I have come to appreciate its elegance this time around. It reminds me of deck-building games wherein the cost of adding a new card to your deck is… adding a new card to your deck. Renown is a little less intuitive than Strength – why would merchants care how famous I was? – but the tension inherent in consuming that resource adds meaningful choice to an otherwise straight-forward decision. Plus, it’s a balancing mechanism preventing you from creating uber-leveled characters.

Like I said before, The Banner Saga 2 is precisely like the original game. If you didn’t have fun playing the first time around, then things are unlikely to have changed. Unless you are like me, apparently, because I’m having a lot of fun now.

That said, fuck Blind Choices. I have zero interest in choosing one of three options, only to find out that my choice results in the loss of 150 Clansmen and dozens of fighters because… arbitrary reasons. I look up the results before I make my “choices,” and feel zero guilt for doing so. I’m not sure if these exist as a sort of roguelike mechanism to encourage multiple playthroughs, but that’s not how I like playing my tactical RPGs.

Civ 6: Just Kidding

I have already uninstalled Civilization 6.

I have gone over this before, but my history with the Civ series is deeply rooted in the past. My first experience was with Civ 2, which I played for hundreds of hours on the Super Nintendo, of all places. The very next Civ game I played was Alpha Centauri, which blew my teenage mind and honestly affected my intellectual trajectory almost by itself. Remember the real-world quotes that pop up once you complete a Wonder or research a specific Technology? They were so cool that I started writing them down, which led to collecting cool quotes wherever I found them, which led to reading the books in which they were quoted, all in service of finding more cool quotes.

After Alpha Centauri though? Nothing. Well… nothing until Civ: Beyond Earth, but we don’t talk about that one. FPS games satisfied my itch for immediate stimulation, and MMOs gave me long-term goals to work towards. Spelled out that way, my prior criticism of Civ 5 makes sense:

I did a sort of beginner’s match in Civ 5 and just started a second game on normal difficulty/Civ spread. With things approaching 1000 AD, I am sort of wondering when the fun starts. The problem from my perspective is that I don’t seem to actually be making any decisions very often. I’m perfectly fine playing the “long game” in strategy titles, but I’m not particularly fine with spam-clicking Next Turn for 200 years. Moving a War Chariot around looking for Barbarians isn’t exactly cutting it.

There are a lot of subtle changes in Civ 6 that I enjoyed. The city districting system, for example, really grew on me. For one thing, it really made you think about where to place your cities strategically – you really cared about the terrain and what you’d be giving up for a district. For another, the fact that Wonders take up a tile all on their own means you can’t have just one uber-city with 37 Wonders piling up. There had never been a scenario in prior Civs where I unlocked access to a Wonder via Research and then was literally unable to build them. “Can’t build the Pyramids without access to a desert? I guess that makes sense. Wonder if there are any desert tiles around…”

Another feature I enjoyed was how Civics was on its own sort of research path, and the whole “policy card” thing. If you were gearing up for a war with your neighbors, you can make unit production faster, or focus on Trade Route bonuses, and so on. There was granularity there, with the design bonus of, again, preventing uber-cities that were good at everything.

Fundamentally though, a Civ game is a Civ game, and that’s where it lost me.

The whole “Just one more turn” byline exists because nothing ever happens in a turn. Or even over a couple. The most fun I have playing Civ games occurs immediately after world creation. You have reasons to move your scouts around, and the possibilities for city expansion are wide open. Things can still surprise you. There are barbarians at the gates, and hunting down their camps is a big deal.

Then, at some point, you hit the ADs and the game becomes clicking End Turn 10 times in a row. If you are shooting for a Science or Culture win condition, you literally have no reason to engage with other civilizations at all. Just sit around, wait for your cities to gain another population, wait for the Workshop to be completed so it can add X more Production to finish your Y project Z turns faster in the future.

Domination and Religious victories give you more things to do, of course. But that’s just the thing: the only way Civ becomes fun for me is with more moment-to-moment choices. In which case, why am I not playing a moment-to-moment game? Civ 6 is a terrible war game, compared with say, the Total War series. When you look at the Science and Culture victories though, again, it’s a whole lot of pressing End Turn and inevitably winning 300 turns later.

It’s entirely possible (and likely) that I’m missing the whole point with the Civ games. I mean, I did pound out something north of 33 hours in Civ 6 within a week, which is more than a part-time job. Obviously there are some components of the base game that I enjoy.

But that’s all there is for me: components. If you love the whole Civ package, that’s fantastic, I can see what all the fuss is about. I just… don’t. There is a gradient between instant gratification and the Zen-like abandonment of all earthly pleasures, and I find the spaces between payoffs in Civ games about 20 turns too far apart. There are options for shorter games, I think, but that’s not necessarily what I want either. Strategic density is more what I’m looking for.

And that’s something I’m going to have to find somewhere else.

Thought Process

“I need to delete some games to free up space on my SSD. Let’s look at Steam.”

“Oh, here’s Civ 6. I tried it for about 10 minutes a few weeks ago, and it didn’t grip me. Why would I want to have to relearn everything from Civ 5? Besides, there are a lot of other, similar games I could be playing instead. This can go.”

“Whoops, I double-clicked on it instead.”

“Whoops, it’s 2am.”

“Whoops, it’s 2am every day this week.”

“I can’t wait for the weekend, so I catch up on my sleep.”

“Sweet, now I can play for 10 hours straight instead of just 5…”

[Fade to Black]

Tank One for the Team

I have been following Overwatch’s “one-trick pony” debacle off-and-on for a few months now. The official word is that no one gets banned for picking just 1-2 heroes and ignoring the team composition. The unofficial word is that you should be banned for not picking a character that best helps the team. Several Top 500 players seemingly get banned for one-tricking, and Gevlon sees a conspiracy to sell lootboxes.

Thing is, the overall system is such a shitshow that I almost agree with Gevlon that there has to be a conspiracy. The alternative is that the designers A) have never participated in a school project in their life, B) never played WoW, and/or C) never played their own damn game for 5 minutes.

See, the problem is this:

We built Overwatch around the concept of teamwork, and we believe the game is much more fun for everyone in a match when we’re picking heroes that contribute to the overall success of the team. At times, this means we’ll be playing our mains; other times, we should be trying to help the team by choosing heroes that round out the team’s composition. We won’t be actioning you if you only play your main, but we also don’t believe this is the ideal way to play Overwatch—especially in competitive settings.

Imagine the following: you are playing WoW and you hit the queue button for Looking For Dungeon. After a minute or so, you zone into the dungeon with five other people. As you stand there looking at one another, you have 40 or so seconds to figure out who is going to be the tank, who the healer, and who the DPS. Oh, and the dungeon itself has a time limit, and the bosses will change based on the classes and specs you choose. Good luck!

It’s an absurdity in a MMO-like setting, but the designers actually think it works in Overwatch. And it does for a bit, because there are X number of people who are willing to take one for the team and choose a character they don’t like to play in order to give the team composition a chance at success.

A team composition that was not chosen as a team, mind you, but rather by the whims of whoever insta-locked the DPS first. So in order to have a chance at winning, you have to reward the selfish behavior of others. And let me tell you, there is nothing more toxic than the feeling you experience when you take one for the team and the team loses.

Possible solutions are relatively straight-forward:

  • Allow players to queue for roles (Tank, Healer, DPS, Flex)
  • Create in-game Guild or Clan functionality, so players can organize themselves
  • Only allow premades in Competitive modes
  • Do nothing, while tacitly admitting your failure as a designer

Thus far, the Overwatch team is decidedly choosing the last option.

From Whence Fun?

The other day I was playing Words with Friends (aka Scrabble app) with my SO. She is not much of a gamer – although she did play WoW back in vanilla – but she enjoys board games, and word games the most. I play along with the word games mainly because it’s something we can do together, but… I don’t really enjoy it. Word games are not my forte, and it does not help that she is way better at words than I am. I have actually legit won on occasion, primarily on the back of a few critical plays when the tiles line up just right. For the most part though, she kicks my ass on the daily.

For those who don’t know, there are an abundance of Words with Friends “cheat” apps out there. What those will do is analyze your seven tiles and the board, and then list out the best possible scoring combinations via brute-force analysis. I have never played with any such apps, but I find the idea amusing simply because that is exactly what I try to do a lot in-game.

See, Words with Friends will only allow valid plays. So, if you don’t know whether something is a word, you can drop tiles and get instant feedback. I have gotten a lot of points before basically dropping random tiles in key locations and making a word I had never heard of.

WordsWithFriends

I don’t even know what “Jeon” is, but I regretted playing it immediately.

The difference between my method and using an app to do it for me is… something.

I suppose it becomes less of a contest between two players’ knowledge when automation is involved, cheapening the experience. On the other hand, my SO plays word games a lot – she runs several concurrent games at a time, in fact – so she has memorized all the different Q words that don’t need a U, and so on, which is a pretty big advantage. And like I mentioned, I can do everything the cheat apps would do, if I was patient enough to do it myself. So, at some point, her overwhelming knowledge versus my very basic brute-force tactics becomes analogous to one or both of us facing two different kinds of bots.

That thought led me to another: what if we both used cheat apps? At that point, the game would probably come down to the random nature of tile distribution, and perhaps a few scenarios in which we had to choose between two same-point plays. Regardless, it doesn’t sound particularly fun, right? If we have automated things that far, we may as well automate the selection of the answer, and just have two bots play against each other forever.

So… from whence did the fun originate?

I think it is safe to say that certainty reduces fun in games. While I do not necessarily mean that randomness needs to exist in order for fun to occur, I do mean that the outcome needs to be unknown, or at least in contention. If one person has the cheating app and the other does not, it’s not likely to be a fun game. Even if no cheating was involved, one player having an overwhelming advantage – either knowledge or skill – and the outcome is probably the same.

But what does that really say about our games, and the way we play them? The better we are at a game, the less fun we likely will have. Having a little advantage is nice, and the process by which we get better (experimenting, practice, etc) is a lot of fun too. At a certain level though, it tapers off. What’s fun after that? Direct competition? Maybe. Part of that fun is likely tied into the whole “unknown level of skill from opponent” thing though. Because if we knew he/she was using a cheat program, that fun would evaporate pretty quickly.

Now, there is a sort of exception here: it can be fun to totally dominate your opponent(s). Be it ganking in MMOs, or aimbots in FPS games, the reason a person would do such a thing is precisely to “collect tears” by specifically ruining other peoples’ experience. At that point though, the medium is kinda immaterial; the bully is just using whatever is convenient and less personally risky.

In any case, I went ahead and shared my thoughts above with my SO and her response was interesting. For her, the “game” within Words with Friends is actually just challenging herself in finding the highest-scoring move each turn – she does not necessarily care about the ultimate outcome of the game. Which, to me, sounds like she should be playing against bots, but nevermind. And I actually understand that sentiment: whenever I was playing BGs in WoW, my goal is not necessarily to win at all costs (e.g. sitting on a flag 100% of the time), but to amuse myself on a micro level, even if I was grinding Honor.

Still, I suspect my SO will eventually tire of the wordplay over time, once her skills plateau. Or… maybe she won’t. After all, I somehow find it infinitely interesting to collect resources in Survival games despite having achieved maximum efficiency usually by clicking the button once. Which leads me back to my original question: from whence fun?

Gaming Update

I’m probably done with RimWorld for now. After installing the mods I was talking about, I found some uranium on the map, made mining it a high priority, and completed the construction of a ship. By the time I had four cryopods – not nearly enough for my 12 colonists – I realized that a lot of it didn’t matter. I could continue fast-forwarding through time, or I could see the ending credits right now. So I did. And this was apparently enough to satisfy whatever itch compelled me to boot the game up every day.

I’ll definitely revisit RimWorld once 1.0 is released, but in the meantime, I’m playing other games.

Ironically, the other game that continues soaking up my free time is another Early Access title: Slay the Spire. I had stopped playing it a few weeks ago, having rather thoroughly and completely beat the game and unlocked everything. The Daily Challenges brought me back: they are normal runs with additional bonuses and/or restrictions. For example, some of them give everyone (including enemies) +3 Strength, or cause you to get three copies of a card when added to your deck, etc.

It is not lost on me that the Daily Challenge has some strong parallels with, say, Mythic+ dungeons in WoW. “Play the same content with additional restrictions/considerations.” The huge, fundamental difference though is that Slay the Spire is fun, and WoW dungeons are not. Well, that and the simple fact that the bonus/penalties in Slay the Spire can change the entire way you approach run, whereas in WoW it just makes the things you were going to do anyway (speedrun past enemies) more deadly.

I haven’t talked about it before, but I’m approaching the end of Rise of the Tomb Raider, e.g. the sequel to the first Tomb Raider reboot. The visuals are incredibly amazing, but for the most part I think I enjoyed the first game better. While this game plays better, I’m at a point where I feel more like Spiderman than Lara Croft. Or Ezio from Assassin’s Creed, for that matter. There’s always been platforming element overlap between the two series, I guess, but it feels more fantastical in Rise of the Tomb Raider than it ever did before.

Going forward, I have a lot more games queued up on my plate. We’ll see which ones actually get any attention though.