About games and gaming thereof!

Archive for October, 2011

Let’s Make Longer Games!

Okay, so we all agree that games were better back in the glory days when my mom gave me free food and I didn’t have to work for a living. Right? Good. But why is that? Is it because giant polygons look better than photorealism? Is it because games back then had obtuse interfaces? Is it because Bobby Kotick is secretly Satan in disguise?

No. It’s because games are shorter.

Let’s face it — the most important thing about a game isn’t whether it’s fun, or engaging, or thought-provoking, or immersive. It’s all about the length. The most important determinant in a game’s quality is how long it takes to reach the end credits. It’s simple logic, really; a game is supposed to take you away from reality, so if a game takes you away for longer, that means it’s better at being a game.

People say that game developers can’t make games as long as they could back in the old days, but I don’t agree with that. There are some simple design techniques you can use to ensure maximum game length for the player. This means you can put a label on the back of the box saying “Over 7000 hours of gameplay!” and you’ll inevitably make more sales. The player gets to play more, you get more money. Win-win, right?

Slowness

This is an incredibly simple technique, and it really pays off. You don’t have to make the environments bigger or more expansive; just make the player character slower. If you let the player breeze through the levels he’ll be done in no time and won’t be satisfied, so slow him down to a snail’s pace and let him hold the right arrow key and watch as he inches along.

It also helps if you slow down the enemy movements. Take Fallout, for instance. In each turn you get to watch each and every enemy mosey around the battlefield, one-by-one. Players don’t want flow. They want to spend five minutes watching radscorpions crawl around in a dark cave.

Obscene Difficulty

The NES era was the best era for games. Games like Castlevania and Ninja Gaiden are some of the longest games we’ve ever had. But if you record how long it takes to get from beginning to end without dying, those games aren’t very long at all. The reason they last you so long is because you inevitably die every three steps.

This is a brilliant way to add more hours to a game’s length, and there are so many wonderful ways it can be achieved. If you’re making a platformer, move each platform as far apart as you can without it being completely out-of-reach. Make the player have to stand so close to the edge that he looks like he’s not even standing on solid ground. If you’re making a shooter, make the enemies so precise and deal so much damage that you have to know what’s coming and where before you even walk in the room. This way the player will be forced to replay the same room over and over until he knows every intricate detail. Because that’s fun. That’s what gaming is all about.

Repetition

Repetitive gameplay is the best kind of gameplay because it’s easy to produce in bulk. It’s as easy as ctrl+c, ctrl+v. If a certain encounter or scene is fun, the most logical thing to do is to repeat it several times. You can tweak each encounter slightly and the player might not even notice.

This is a very obvious design technique, and yet so many developers these days completely forget about it. Portal was a pretty cool concept, but it wasn’t a real game because it was only a few hours long. If it featured more slightly different renditions of the same few puzzles it would have been far better.

Lives Systems

Super Meat Boy was a recent game that did well with the Obscene Difficulty, but one thing it forgot to incorporate was a lives system (except for the warp zones, which were brilliant in every tangible way). By adding an arbitrary lives system that kicks the player out of the game after they die one too many times, you end up eating a lot more of the player’s time by forcing them to replay the same content over and over. This is a fantastic way to extend a game’s length.

Fin

The bottom line is, if a game isn’t boring or frustrating, it could probably stand to be a bit longer. Games need to eat up more time. After all, it’s not like we have jobs or social lives to attend to. We gamers need to work for our fun, and games don’t feel quite enough like work. Not as much as they used to.

Advertisements

AvP: The Facehugger

Before I go into the side-by-side comparisons of each campaign, I want to talk about one specific feature in the human and predator campaigns: the facehuggers.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Xenomorph lore, a facehugger is basically an alien larva that looks like a spider. It latches onto the face of its victim (typically a human or predator), wraps its tail around the victim’s neck to knock it unconscious, and then dumps a Xenomorph embryo into his or her chest.

That sounds like solid material for a horror movie, but here’s how it works in AvP1.

There’s this tiny creature that’s hard to spot if you’re not expecting it. It quickly scurries around on the ground, and if you’re close enough for it to pounce on you (it has a pretty long jump distance) then it instantly covers the screen and kills you. There is nothing you can do about it if you didn’t manage to spot and shoot the tiny little target beforehand. Just POOF! Dead.

That’s less fair than quick-time-events. That’s less fair than the creepers from Minecraft. That is the fucking epitome of unfair. The only saving grace is that its crawling sound is fairly loud, but that doesn’t help you if it’s waiting behind a wall or if you’re too busy being attacked by an army of aliens to notice (and you usually are).

And yet I could see people defending this design choice by saying that that’s how it works in the movies.

I’ve seen this tendency a lot among gamers; defending horrible gameplay by explaining the justification in the context of the story or setting. One acquaintance of mine tried to justify FEAR’s complete lack of genuine scariness by saying, “Well, it makes sense that you’re a super-powerful badass, since you’re Alma’s daughter.” When Yahtzee pointed out how much more fun Fallout 3 and New Vegas would be if they had a fast-travel system that didn’t break immersion and force you to skip content, such as a car or motorcycle, people objected against that idea because the Fallout world apparently doesn’t have working cars.

Probably the most notable example of this, from my perspective anyway, was something I said in that Fallout post I wrote forever ago (take a shot). I asked why Vault 15 needed to exist in the first place, and many people responded by explaining the setting to me. The thing is, I already knew that, and I felt that those people had sort of missed my point, though that may have been my fault for not specifying in my post.

Story perspective: The denizens of Vault 13 don’t know about Shady Sands because they don’t actually know that civilization exists outside of the vaults. For all they know, the entire world is now a howling wasteland devoid of human life. Therefore, the only advice they can give is that Vault 15 might have what you’re looking for.

Okay, I can buy that.

Gameplay perspective: Go to Vault 15. Oh, you didn’t stop at that one town along the way? Well, too bad! You need a rope to get in! Go backtrack. Oh, you got the rope? Good, because this vault has nothing of use for you! Ha-ha! You idiot! You went on a fetch quest and wasted some of your precious 150 days just to run into a dead end! We’re all laughing at you! Black Isle is smarter than you!

I take solace in the fact that Black Isle no longer exists.

See, this is the problem I have. I like it when the gameplay and story are in harmony, but in so many of these cases we get games where the story causes problems for the gameplay.

I’m not saying story doesn’t matter, but when the story is causing problems in the gameplay department, something needs to be done about the story. In the case of Fallout 1, here’s a few alterations to the story that would have made the gameplay less time-wasting and stupid.

Instead of having Shady Sands and Vault 15 be two different settlements, make Shady Sands into a village that was built around the ruins of Vault 15. Say that they decided to build the settlement there because of easy distance to the leftover supplies from the Vault. Or maybe you could remove Shady Sands and instead make Vault 15 a town itself. Say that the original Vault 15 denizens decided to open the gate and learn to farm just outside. Vault 15 goes from being an enclosed vault to being a peaceful little town. Like Shady Sands, but underground.

What was I talking about? Oh yeah! Aliens vs. Predator.

Thankfully AvP2 fixed the facehugger issue. If a facehugger grabs you when your health is low, then it’ll insta-kill you, but if your health is modestly high, it’ll deal a bit of damage and then you grab it and throw it off of your face. They’re still threatening this way, but the penalty for failing to spot and shoot the tiny target is far more reasonable.


Aliens vs. Predator

I’ve never really been exposed to the Aliens vs. Predator franchise before. Or rather, I’ve never really been exposed to the Aliens or Predator franchises before, because they are two separate franchises that happen to often hold crossovers. I’m not much of a film geek, and the original Alien & Predator movies came before my time. I remember watching part of the 2004 Alien vs. Predator movie, but I was pretty much bored the whole time. I didn’t really get into it.

But thanks to the wonders of Steam, I’ve recently dug myself into two games: Aliens versus Predator, and Aliens vs. Predator. Two games released almost exactly a decade apart by the same studio, and the second one is arguably a remake of the first. It doesn’t feel much like a remake, but I’m assuming it isn’t a sequel, since it has the exact same title. But to avoid confusing the titles apart, I’ve decided I’m going to refer to the 1999 Aliens versus Predator as AvP1 and the 2010 Aliens vs. Predator as AvP2. If nothing else, it sort of makes sense if you assume 1 is short for 1999 and 2 is short for 2010.

Anyway, this is basically my first time to explore the design and details of the Alien and Predator creatures, and I must say that both of them seem rather eerily familiar. The first Alien movie was released in 1979, and the first Predator movie came out in 1987, so I’ll be kind enough to assume that the two creatures invented or at least innovated their respective archetypes in their times, but we’ve seen both of them several more times by now.

The alien archetype can be described as a race of monstrous, mindless aliens that are controlled by a central hivemind and reproduce by feeding off of and/or taking control of other species, while the Predator archetype can be described as a hyper-advanced alien race that has tribal culture and cloaking technology, and yet insists on using melee weapons like swords or claws half the time. Standing in between them is an army of human space marines, firing their guns and spouting off one-liners while their friends get eaten alive or stabbed in the back.

The two game franchises that spring to mind are Starcraft (with the Zerg and Protoss) and Halo (with the Flood and Covenant). I asked Twitter what other alien races we’ve had that fit the Predator archetype and got several answers, including the Klingons from Star Trek, the Nox from Stargate Sg-1 (which I’ve never watched, so pardon me if I spelled something wrong there) and even the Nightkin from Fallout, if you’re willing to accept mutants instead of aliens.

I’ve never really been into Halo, but I find the Zerg and Protoss lore far more interesting than the Alien and Predator lore. The Predators seem far more simplistic than the Protoss; when you look at the history of the Protoss, they seem almost tragic, while the Predators are basically just a bunch of macho hunters who prove their manliness by committing genocide on other unsuspecting species. And the Zerg I find more interesting than the Aliens because of the way they were created, as well as the variety between all the different species of Zerg contained in the hive.

You could argue that it’s unfair to criticize them for being unoriginal even though they may have been back in the day. And that would be true, if I were criticizing the original movies. But the fact that they’re still trying to sell us these creatures that are now textbook clichés really smacks of unwillingness to evolve.

It reminds me of the people who criticize Gears of War and Halo for being about “dumb space marines” and then give that new Warhammer 40k game a free ride because 40k supposedly invented the trope (or at least brought the trope to gaming, since the trope had already been invented by 1959). That doesn’t make it any more interesting. You have to make it interesting. You have to bring something new to the table, or else it gets stale.

Whoops, got a little off-track. So, Aliens vs. Predator then. I know I haven’t yet discussed the gameplay or design of the AvP games, but I intend to in later posts. This is actually a great opportunity for me, considering what I tend to do on this blog. I usually play an old game, talk about it, and try to imagine what that game would have been like if it were released today. But I can’t actually see what the game would be like today, because different studios have different tendencies and games tend to vary quite a lot in terms of quality. I can make big blanket statements like “they generally don’t do [insert design choice here] anymore,” or “it probably would have had regenerating health,” but nothing is really set in stone.

However, in this case, I have a game from 1999, supposedly the “Golden Age of PC Gaming,” and another game from just last year. They’re from the same studio, and like I said before, you could argue that the second one is a remake of the first. So in this case I can compare today’s industry directly to yesterday’s industry. No nostalgia to fog my vision, no differing studios to serve as extraneous variables.

If all goes according to plan (by which I mean if I can actually stick to a plan for once), then I’ll write one post about each of the creatures’ campaigns and compare the two games side-by-side. I’ll compare the Predator campaign to the Predator campaign, and the Alien campaign to the Alien campaign. I might not do so for the marines, because the marine campaigns are just too damn boring. After that I might give a Final Thoughts post about both games taken as whole packages.

Needless to say I’ve pretty much already made my mind about which game I think is better, but I don’t want to spoil that for you. Not quite yet.


Blue Screen of Awesome

Open up your bookmarks tab, ladies and gentlemen, for there’s a new gaming website to spend hours at a time reading at: Blue Screen of AWESOME.

Of course, there has to be at least two billion gaming websites out these days, and most of your time is probably already taken up by Ninja Game Den, so what makes this one special? Well, I’ll give you one word: Jarenth. Or rather, Jarenth is regularly writing articles and providing commentary on games there. Guess that’s more than one word.

Jarenth, as you all know, is a regular commentator at here, Twenty Sided, Chocolate Hammer, and all those other cool places where the cool people talk about cool stuff. Jarenth is also somebody I have occasional conversations with on Steam. Awhile ago he mentioned something to me about him saying stuff about games with his friends on a website of some sort, so I’ve pretty much been holding my breath since then. Just from reading his comments on other people’s blogs one can tell that Jarenth is a really good writer, and I’ve been wanting to see what entire articles of his would look like.

And now their site appears to be open to the public. Well, it’s been “open to the public” for awhile, but he didn’t throw me a link until yesterday, so whatever.

From the looks of it, each cast member has his own little personalized column devoted to some topic, and then they all join together to review big games Rock-Paper-Shotgun style. Jarenth’s little corner is called Indie Wonderland, and it appears to be devoted entirely to writing about cheap little indie games.

I find this interesting, because that’s exactly the sort of thing I was originally planning to do with my blog when I first started. My first two posts were about Plain Sight, an indie deathmatch game, and Plants vs. Zombies, a tower defense game that technically isn’t indie but goes for $10 nonetheless. I was considering devoting this blog entirely to the little leagues, but then I remembered that I generally can’t focus on something for more than eight seconds.

In any case, Jarenth has already written about a few games I was thinking of writing about but never did (Xotic, The Binding of Isaac). You should go read those. His opinions of those games are eerily similar to my own, and yet slightly more eloquent and sexy. There’s also a guy who plays MMOs, and another guy who plays… Soccer, I guess? Whatever. You’ve got time. Go read it. This is journalism, people. It’s serious business.


Tomb Raider

Roughly three weeks ago on an episode of The Big Picture, Bob talked about sexism in gaming and why feminists have such an issue with it.

Now, I’ve had issues with many of the things MovieBob has said in the past. (PC gaming is dead and anybody who says otherwise is in denial, the Hitman franchise is nothing but “flash-in-the-pan,” the entire first person shooter genre is bad for the games industry because of Call of Duty, Metroid: Other M wasn’t a pile of shit, etc.)

But I really like this video of his. He makes great points, and I think he did an effective job at summarizing why pandering, hyper-sexualized female characters are detrimental to games and stories in general.

To summarize: He basically stated that the main problem with female characters posing to look sexy for the camera is that it prevents any sense of meaningful characterization in their poses. While you can generally learn all about the personality and disposition of a male character by looking at a picture of him, with female characters all you can tell is that she’s supposed to look hot.

With that in mind, I want to take a look at Lara Croft.

What, exactly, does this picture tell us about Lara Croft’s personality or disposition? We can assume she knows how to use guns, but other than that, what is she doing beyond posing for some hypothetical camera? Nothing, really. This ultimately looks like the cover of a magazine, where Lara has been told to pose in such a way to make her look as enticing as possible.

This is how Lara Croft has been for a good long while. Supposedly she was originally written to be a sort of female equivalent of Indiana Jones, but it didn’t take long for her to become reduced to eye candy. The Tomb Raider series has basically become infamous for this, and it’s very unfortunate, considering the fact that she’s one of gaming’s only major female icons.

Now let’s look at the new Lara Croft.

This is a wallpaper for the new Tomb Raider reboot (or prequel, I forget which) coming out in 2012. Crystal Dynamics has sought to reinvent the character, and depict her in a different light. This light looks far more interesting.

The dirt, cuts and bruises imply she’s been through a lot of pain, but her facial expression implies that she’s confident and ready to push onward. Brave. Strong. This image is inspiring. Lara looks like a really strong, compelling character.

Let’s look at another wallpaper.

Incidentally: Damn, this shot looks really good. And it looks much better in its non-resized form. We haven’t quite hit photorealism yet, but we’re getting close.

This pose shows desperation. Lara is injured, but she’s doing everything she can to survive. She’s pushing onward in the face of death. Also note that the crashed ship in the background and the debris strewn across the ground imply the damage that’s been done and the situation she’s in. This is powerful visual storytelling. It tells us everything we need to know without using one word.

Neither of these shots, nor any of the other images from the new game, are using her as eye candy. She looks like a real character now. A person with motivations and ambitions. Somebody we can relate to.

I have no idea how good the gameplay and story might be in this new Tomb Raider installment, but just from what we can see about Lara Croft, I’m very excited about this. Color me interested, Square-Enix.


Anaksha: Female Assassin

Yeah, this game is over three years old. I feel like talking about it anyway, namely because most of you probably have never seen it.

I generally consider it a good thing when a game can make some sort of statement, some lesson about how the world works. That’s what constitutes “art” in my mind — if a game can explore a topic in a meaningful way. And Anaksha: Female Assassin has a very distinct and memorable lesson: Men are evil.

Before I go on, I want to clarify that I haven’t beaten the game. I only got to the beginning of Act 2, because that’s when I felt the game had taught me enough.

Anaksha: Female Assassin is an assassination game, as indicated by the title. In each mission you’re given the description of your target (along with a lengthy cutscene establishing why he’s a super horrible person) and then you’re set into a sniping position where you wait for your target to appear and then shoot his face.

And every single target is a cartoonishly-huge jerk who abuses his wife. Often he’ll also be a drug dealer, or a regular visitor at a strip club (which is apparently just as horrible). The exact atrocities of each target varies slightly, but the general gist of it is always the same: He’s an abusive asshole.

The protagonist, Anaksha, is established to have been traumatized when she saw her best friend abused and murdered by her husband (of course). As such, she feels duty-bound to kill every single ‘scumbag’ in this great big city until they’re all dead. Now, this could make for an interesting character, but only if there’s an interesting character arc to go along with it. It would have been very interesting and compelling if she was forced to mature and face the fact that her actions have ethical ramifications and consequences.

Amusingly, this almost happens at the end of Act 1. She kills someone who apparently abused his wife (obviously) and deals drugs to kids. Then she hears on the news that this man who recently mysteriously died by a sniper shot to the face was a good guy who donated lots of money to charity and was super nice. She freaks out and goes to an old friend of hers, a man who sort of serves as a surrogate father figure, and confesses her crimes.

Wow! This might actually become interesting!

Then he tells her that the news reporter lady was wrong, and that the guy actually was a horrible person, and that what Anaksha did was totally okay and cool.

Oh. Never mind then. I guess the world really is that black-and-white. There are Good People and Bad People, and the best way to make the world a better place is to kill the Bad People.

See, this is what bothers me. The game constantly glorifies Anaksha’s line of work, even though she’s ultimately murdering countless people in cold blood. Yes, those people may have committed crimes, but does that make it okay to kill every single one of them without a second’s hesitation?

I’m really reminded of Rorschach from Watchmen. The crucial difference here, though, is that Watchmen never glorifies what Rorschach does. He’s never envisioned as some amazing do-gooder who’s making the world a better place. He’s envisioned as a fucking sociopath, which is what Anaksha is. And it seemed like the game was so close to actually embracing the concept, and then it completely turned the other way.

I really hate to give this game such a beating, because it’s clearly trying to do some good for the industry. This isn’t a game about a white man; this is a game about an Indian woman. And it’s supposed to be about female empowerment. But it isn’t, really. It’s just another game about a hypocritically violent, self-righteous psychopath who’s considered the “good guy” because her enemies are even less likeable than her.


Minecraft 1.8: The Fight Against Nature

Before I start, I just want to direct you to the top of your screen. See that URL? See the .wordpress on the end? There isn’t one, is there? That’s right, because Ninja Game Den has its own URL now! Man, this is crazy. It’s like I’m running an actual website or something.

Ahem. Anyway, my friends and I started up another server on Minecraft in accordance with the 1.8 patch.

This is our village. My house is the generic looking high-rise apartment on the very left.

1.8 added many things, but the most notable addition is hunger. Now when you’re playing in survival mode with the difficulty set higher than Peaceful, you’ll have a hunger bar that slowly decreases. You have to eat food in order to bump it back up.

Note that hunger isn’t the same thing as health; now your health will regenerate by itself, when your hunger bar is high. But if your hunger bar is empty, you’ll start losing health at a rapid pace. And food doesn’t restore health anymore (although I guess it restores your health indirectly since you need to be full in order to gain your health back).

It doesn’t sound like much of an addition, but it completely changes the dynamic of the game.

See, normally in Minecraft you’re completely safe once you get:

  • A torch or two, and
  • A closed-off shelter

Both of these are very easy to get early on, so the game doesn’t really feel like a fight for survival, even though you’re playing on Survival Mode.

Now you have to have a closed-off, well-lit shelter, and a stable source of food. This means you can either go hunting often to get animal meat, or you can grow a farm. Each of those options offers its own challenges. Hunting can put you in danger, since you have to travel long distances and are in danger of getting lost or stranded at night, and farming is a fairly complex process that requires a lot of space and preparation.

On our server, we went with farming.

We let all the wheat grow, and then periodically one of us (most often me) will go through, pick all the wheat, turn the wheat into bread, till the fields, and plant new seeds. It sounds tedious, but it goes by pretty quickly and it feels satisfying. Then we store the bread in the common house and whoever needs food can go grab some.

I love this feature. It really drives home that survival feel; it makes you feel like you’re in an ongoing struggle against nature. It also makes damage from enemies not quite as frustrating, since you don’t have to eat three pork chops just to recover from one skeleton ambush.

It also makes the game last longer for me. The main reason why I’m not as much of a fan of Minecraft as everyone else is because I’m just not really much of a visual artist, which means I don’t really have the desire to build big, extravagant, pretty scenery. As such, once I have adequate housing with adequate tools, I pretty much run out of stuff to do. I did eventually reach that point in this, but it took longer to get there since I had to gather food along the way.

I’ve been having a hard time deciding between my default ninja skin and this Zeratul skin.

Apparently for 1.9 they’re talking about adding procedurally-generated NPCs with procedurally-generated quests. I’m extremely skeptical about that. What kinds of quests could you incorporate into Minecraft? The three that come to mind are “Kill X amount of Y,” “Gather X amount of Y,” or “Travel from X to Y.” None of those sound appealing for a game like this. I have never looked at Minecraft and thought it needed more World of Warcraft.