Monday, December 31, 2012

Doing it again isn't fun.

One of 2012's most critically-acclaimed games is The Walking Dead, an adventure game (which is to say, a game about clicking on everything) with some action elements. The major point leading to its acclaim is the strength of its character interactions. I bought it on sale, and unfortunately I'm now regretting that; not because of the story, but because of the saved game system.

Naturally, a game which forces you to make decisions needs to make those decisions count; so the game only has one save file for a playthrough. That, unfortunately, is where the problem lies; there's no explicit saving allowed, in a bid to avoid save-scumming. That puts the player at the mercy of the developer's autosaves, and they have scant mercy. They're infrequent; it's perfectly possible to go half an hour of solving puzzles, talking to people, and generally moving things on with no autosave happening. They're hidden; I don't actually know if there's any way to tell when they happen. I certainly haven't seen a way, and I haven't seen any kind of tooltip suggesting it. I found out the hard way about the half-hour; I started playing again, and found myself not having solved a puzzle I know for a fact I'd solved half an hour before I quit the game. At which point I promptly quit again, and am now considering getting rid of the game; because the developers do not have the decency to respect my investment of time.

Shamus Young has decried the idiocy of "Do It Again, Stupid" gameplay, but I feel that this is worse. DIAS merely wipes some of your progress in a predictable manner; this frankly broken save system wipes progress in an UNpredictable manner that doesn't even show up until one re-starts the game; at which point, with the vagaries of human memory being what they are, it is nigh-impossible to recall what is or isn't actually done, particularly given the lack of indication attached to saving. The entire point of saving the game is to ensure that what the player has done in the game remains done; that's why the save system of The Walking Dead cannot be described as other than broken. It doesn't perform its most basic function reliably.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Learning the right lessons

The computer games industry is a bit of a strange one. Everyone is convinced somebody else has the secret of success, so every single time something succeeds unexpectedly, you can guarantee a flood of imitators. Currently, the recent unexpected success is Minecraft, so we're seeing a flood of games which, to put it bluntly, look like the bastard offspring of Tetris and a random noise generator.

This is largely thanks to the industry's astounding capacity for learning the wrong lessons. In the case of Minecraft, they saw the presentation, and decided "Blocks are what people want!", when in fact the lesson they should have taken was "people want sandboxes they can really affect".

Now, I don't own Minecraft, and probably never will, but it's my understanding that the exceedingly cubic look is a consequence of its treating the world as a set of discrete chunks, each cubic unit of the world being homogeneous. The appeal isn't in the cubes; it's in the ability to mess with said cubes, to affect how the world is put together. That sort of player agency, coupled with accessibility, is what made Minecraft the huge success it became. Dwarf Fortress has been offering the ability to drastically remodel the game world for longer than Minecraft has existed, but its interface is opaque and it relies on AI routines following player orders, rather than the player doing it himself.

So, for success, offer something that takes the right aspect of Minecraft: it allows the player to do things that weren't previously possible, not the wrong aspect: it's made of cubes.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Geometry and self-knowledge

For some reason, my online friends regard me as an authority on cars. I'm not sure why this is; I don't actually know all that much about cars, compared to many other people I know; but I'm the kind of person who dislikes black boxes. I want to know why cars work, and why they're made the way they are. So I seek out information. I try to learn. And occasionally, that results in me gaining a shocking insight that I hadn't thought of before. Today, that was regarding piston velocities.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Hunter, and why it's badly designed

First things first: an admin note. No, I did not wake up and type all this in by 4.30am on a Monday; this is a canned post. Apparently early content gets more views, so the scheduled posts are moving.

Now, on to the content. This post is in regards to Left 4 Dead 2, and to some extent Left 4 Dead (although I don't own Left 4 Dead, and so I won't be saying a huge amount about it) and the enemies within these games. How these games work is simple: you have a horde of normal "Infected", which run at you and attempt to beat you to death, and a smaller number of "Special Infected" which are more complex to deal with. Left 4 Dead has the Tank, which is huge, exceedingly tough, and hits like a runaway train; the Smoker, which snares you from a distance and drags you away from your buddies while preventing you from using weapons; the Boomer, which covers you in zombie-attractant goop and blurs your vision; the Witch, which will incapacitate you in one hit if you annoy her too much by proximity, loud noise, bright light, or similar; and the Hunter, which I consider one of the worst game design decisions I've ever encountered. Left 4 Dead 2 keeps these, and adds the Spitter, which covers areas in damaging acid; the Charger, which charges the group of players and may scoop one up and run away with him, stopping to pound him on the ground afterward; and the Jockey, which leaps on a survivor's shoulders and attempts to force him away from the group, into Spitter acid, and so on.

You'll note that I didn't actually say what the Hunter does in the preceding paragraph. I wanted to go into more detail here. What it does is leap on you and immediately begin stripping away your hitpoints. It pins you down and tears at you. My major problem with it is that there is almost no counter to it. It's very hard to see, since it's in black in a game set at night, and it's not taller than the horde of normal Infected; it does give a warning shriek, but there's every chance that hearing that will result in you turning your back on it since stereo sound can only localise to a bearing, and the reciprocal bearing is just as valid given the information you have; and if you happen to be facing it, you will have a tiny timing window in which to fend it off. If you're facing away from it, there is nothing you can do; you're forced to watch helplessly as the game essentially points and laughs.

And therein lies my main problem with the Hunter. It's hard to counter, if you're even lucky enough to be in a position to counter it, and once it has you there is NOTHING you can do. Smokers give a more generous timing window to break the lock, even though you'd expect the dragging to make them more of a problem; but you can save yourself with quick reflexes. Boomers can easily be dealt with; shove them away, then kill them. Witches force a change in approach from "kill everything" to "sneak past quietly" (or, for the advanced crowd or those with no alternative, "run up and hit her with a shotgun blast from melee range"), and Tanks require teamwork to take down as each player attempts to redirect the Tank's aggression away from its current target (or, if you can cope with the fact that they move faster while burning, hit the Tank with a Molotov cocktail and it'll die inside a minute). Spitters are easily spotted, being taller than the horde and equipped with glowing green acid. Chargers can be dealt with simply by sidestepping and letting them stun themselves on walls. Jockeys can be resisted; you're not helpless, even when it gets you. There isn't the feeling with any of the Specials other than the Hunter that the game is mocking you. The Hunter is a cheap shot.

I'm firmly of the opinion that the Jockey is what the Hunter should have been. Had I had control, I would have pushed hard for the removal of the Hunter from the second game; it's simply not a fun enemy to fight, and in a game, that's an unforgivable sin.

Friday, December 7, 2012

An update on the knee...

I mentioned earlier that I had a damaged knee. It's currently not as damaged; I can put weight on it, I can get around well enough to do what I need to without too much pain. It's still not right, though, as any activity out of the most basic causes it to start feeling like it's coming apart. So clearly, this is not a problem I can ignore and have it go away.

Which makes it distinctly vexing that my health insurance providers have denied my doctor's request for non-invasive diagnosis. Apparently, an acute joint injury isn't worth properly diagnosing on someone with chronic joint problems. I am getting an orthopaedic referral, but I'm still annoyed at the refusal to cover any of the cost of an MRI. Not that they'd cover it ANYWAY, considering my deductible (or excess, for the UK folks), but if I just go ahead and get it anyway, they don't count the expense incurred towards said deductible.

And on the subject of deductibles, mine refreshes at the start of each calendar year. That means my best policy right now is to delay, in case the knee turns out to be expensive; and of course delaying makes it more likely it will be expensive.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Planning ahead

Lately, there's been a lot of discussion about sequels in the computer games business. Claims have been made that "New IPs don't sell", that people gravitate to what's familiar, and that, with the economy shakey, companies should retrench and stick to what they know.

I call all of that rubbish. While it's abundantly clear that sequels to well-known games can do very well (witness the Call of Duty phenomenon, with I have no idea how many sequels because it's split into so many, many different lines of cover-based shooters that I can't tell apart), it's also clear that slapping a respected name on a donkey of a game won't convince buyers it's an Arabian (the current example being Medal of Honor: Warfighter, which carries the critically-acclaimed name of the game that gave rise to Call of Duty, and is tanking) and that some of the other sacred cows of the industry are, shall we say less than prime beef at this point.

Let's look at multiplayer. A common sentiment in recent years has been that games need multiplayer modes to be successful. However, some of the most critically-acclaimed games have been strictly single-player (Half-Life 2; Bioshock; Deus Ex: Human Revolution; Dishonored; Skyrim; Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2; Mirror's Edge) and there are plenty of examples of games weakened by the addition of multiplayer (Bioshock 2; Mass Effect 3; Spec Ops: The Line). Frankly, it behooves any company pitching a game to examine whether multiplayer is appropriate, and stick to that. In the cases of Bioshock 2 and Spec Ops: The Line, the multiplayer modes were insisted on by the publisher, and the developers have in both cases stated that they would rather not have included that feature.

Now let's look at sequels versus new IP. Dishonored is the current poster child for "new can sell", and is reportedly doing better than expected; there are rumours of forthcoming sequels. That saddens me; while I haven't played Dishonored myself, I've picked up enough knowledge to get the very strong impression that while the universe it's in is interesting, it is a complete story in and of itself, and doesn't need a sequel. Admittedly, Bethesda, its publisher, is known mostly for its Elder Scrolls series which, while they are consecutively numbered, does not consist of a tightly coupled series of sequels. Each Elder Scrolls game stands on its own. The trouble with sequels is the need to go bigger and better than the previous installment; this has led to absurdities in one of the Call of Duty franchises, as setting off a nuclear weapon has become insufficiently shocking a set-piece. Not every creative endeavour needs to become a cash cow; while I'm glad of the success of the Dresden Files series of books, well into double digits by now, I can also appreciate the virtues of knowing when to stop.

Retrenching and sticking to what you know is a worrying strategy. While it may result in a reliable income stream, the average person doesn't tend to want to leap into a series in the middle, and it's a fact of life that the first installment is always the strongest seller. With a shakey economy, it seems to me that now is the time to take chances. Give that small studio with a nifty idea a chance; get lots of ideas out there, and while inevitably there will be failures, some will succeed beyond your wildest dreams. The current corporate culture is pathologically risk-averse.

Let's defy conventional wisdom.