Archive for March, 2010

Getting to the Heart of the RPG

Friday, March 26th, 2010

Alright, this post should at last finish off this line of RPG inquiry. I’ll start with my views on FF XIII and ME2, and finish off with what I see as the defining characteristics of the RPG experience.

My review of FF XIII comes with a minor caveat, since I haven’t actually played the game for more than an hour or so. I’d like to find some interest at the thought of picking it up again, but having watched my brother play it about halfway through, my motivation is strangely lacking. Not that the game isn’t impressive on a cinematic level, but I’ve already seen that part. The difference between playing FF XIII and watching FF XIII is so marginal (especially for the first 10-15 hours) that I just can’t be bothered to go through it again.

FF XIII essentially comes in two parts: combat and cinematics. The latter is straightforward enough, with the characters mainly talking about how they have to keep fighting and not give up hope. But halfway through the game it’s still not quite clear who they’re fighting against or what for. Clearly, semi-divine entities with vaguely defined powers are at the root of the problem, with the characters as unwilling tools in their evil plan. More than that I haven’t been able to figure out.

While the story is a little uninspiring (though with a couple good moments), the combat has some potential. Despite directly controlling only one third of the forces at your disposal, there is definitely depth here, although it takes excruciatingly long to get to it. The most important action seems to be paradigm switching, which changes up the roles of your characters and the behavior of your two AI buddies. The basics of paradigms are not complicated but there are subtle differences between all the possible combinations. Usually you need a medic and a damage dealer (commando or ravager) in your paradigm. If the enemy does a lot of damage, use a synergist to begin with. If the enemy is tough, use a saboteur. If heavily damaged, bring out more medics. If the enemy is on its last legs, go with all damage dealers.

Aside from that there is also leveling up your characters, but there aren’t as many options here as it first appears. The characters all have a favored role that isn’t really worth trying to change. But with the paradigm system your characters often do need secondary and even tertiary roles, so there are choices there on how much focus to put on each. The system isn’t bad by any means, though I’m not a big fan of the ‘disks-whirling-through-space’ presentation of it. It is shiny to be sure, but it makes it unnecessarily difficult to tell where the hell you are.

Another thing that sticks out to me about FF games in general is the rather random nature of their items and enemies. It often seems like the visual representation of everything you come across is almost completely cut off from its gameplay function and statistics. Even in the beginning, before your characters get magic powers, they fight some pretty dangerous looking soldiers and giant war machines, and yet somehow manage to overcome them with a couple punches. Something feels off when a heavily armored soldier fires a machine gun burst into my guy’s chest, who then walks up and punches him in the gut, dealing ten times more damage. Naturally, things get progressively weirder as time goes on. You fight everything from giant, flying warships to blobs of goo and things that kinda look like dancing birds with enormous flapping sleeves. From what I’ve gathered, these things become even more unrecognizable later in the game. Your first reaction to these wild and varied forms is bound to be “what the hell is that thing?’ But after a little while it doesn’t really matter. They’re all just enemies. The stuff on screen is just shaking, flapping, spinning noise that you ignore as you cast Libra and go look at data that actually tells you something useful. The noise is certainly pretty, sometimes even managing to look pretty damn cool. But does it have anything to do with gameplay? Not really.

Going off on a bit of tangent, this rather reminds me of a Gnomon Workshop video I watched once about creativity in character design. The instructor, whose name I can’t recall, had an approach to design that is probably pretty close to that of FF artists. He started off by drawing extremely rough and random sketches, making sure not to have any idea of what the hell he was trying to make. He didn’t even know whether he wanted to make an environment or a character. After going through at least a hundred pages of random scribbling, he finally discovered a shape he liked and started rendering a character out of it. The character he ended up with was a pile of random blobs with and eyeball sticking out of it. This was creative, he said, because no one would be able to say what the hell it was. See, the only way to be creative is to create completely unrecognizable things that are completely unlike anything that already exists. But of course under his own criteria he failed utterly in being creative, because he drew a clearly recognizable eye on his creature. There is nothing creative about eyes, really. Eyes have been done to death already by other artists, and they also happen to exist in real life! Come up with something original for once, you noobs.

Time to get back to work now; I swear the next part will be the last.

To be continued…

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Say Hello to a Spartan

Sunday, March 21st, 2010

My current project is a strategy game set in ancient Greece, and utilizes a combat system that should result in some pretty epic battles. I’ve done the units in a bit of Civilization-inspired style. A quick preview:

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The Naked Reality of Games

Friday, March 19th, 2010

This should be considered a continuation of my last post, although it may end up taking a bit of a different route than I first had in mind. The goal, however, is to still to get to the bottom of the RPG genre, to see what really defines it and what it has that draws people in. I’ll consider this question in light of several recent RPGs (or at least RPG hybrids) that I haven’t fully managed to get into despite high expectations.

I’ll start with Borderlands, which I rented a few weeks ago and played pretty extensively with my brother. I also tried it online briefly without much success. Player levels in the game I joined varied widely and there didn’t seem to be much coordination, with the two higher level characters blowing through everything pretty much on their own. The game is definitely at its best when played in co-op with friends who are all at about the same level. A few times either me or my brother would race ahead a little bit in single player, and then later we’d have to play a bit of catch up to even out our characters again. Not necessarily ideal, but definitely enjoyable.

To put things simply, Borderlands is basically Diablo with shooter mechanics. The story is similarly weak, the shooting feels a lot like hacking and slashing, and likewise there are endles piles of magic items to collect. I call them magic because more often than not their effects seem arbitrary and inexplicable. Now how does regenerating ammo work exactly? A small munitions factory in your pocket perhaps? Or maybe a teleportation device that steals ammo from some warehouse? Irrelevant, right? It’s just a gameplay mechanic, you might say. Just another way of more conveniently replenishing a number. And to an extent I can accept that. I can still enjoy Borderlands for the mindless, shooty, bloody grinding that it is. But I would nonetheless argue that Borderlands is filled with arbitrary number-whoring that threaten to tear open the one great lie of video gaming: that we are actually doing something interesting in some other place, instead of pressing buttons merely to change meaningless numbers. I feel this illusion breaking down when I have to empty five clips of ammo into the center of some guy’s face before he falls down. It breaks further when I can shoot another guy that looks the same, and bring him down with just one shot. In those moments I am no longer on a distant planet, laying waste to a horde of sado-masochistic raiders, but merely reducing a property called ‘hitPoints’ on a virtual object called ‘enemy.’ What is it that I get for reducing all these numbers to zero? Watching the numbers of my character increase? So that I can go to a slightly different place and instead shoot enemies with somewhat higher hitPoint numbers?

Still, raw numbers do have some strange attraction to them, even when they don’t serve as a particularly logical representation of anything. With enough variation in gameplay actions and graphics, it is possible to just enjoy the challenge, appreciate the visual spectacle, and long for those precious numbers to change for the better.

There is another mechanic that in my mind makes the numbers more palatable, and is something that Borderlands lacks in. This, quite simply, is choice. There is some of this in Borderlands, like which class to pick and what weapon to use. But of character customization there is little. There is no visual customization (aside from color), only one active skill to use per class, and stat bonus skills that are often obvious picks. Statwise there is much more control here than in most RPG hybrids (like Fallout 3 and ME2) but it still feels like something’s missing.

To be continued…

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What Defines an RPG?

Saturday, March 13th, 2010

A few weeks ago I described Borderlands to my brother with the following words: “It’s quite a bit like Fallout 3 with co-op but it’s much more of an RPG.” I wouldn’t agree with that statement anymore, as it could easily be flipped around depending on your definition of what makes an RPG an RPG. I was arguing of course that Borderlands is more RPG-ish because it has tons of loot, more power gained from leveling, etc. Fallout 3 of course has very few weapons and you gain power very slowly, so I always saw it mainly as a sandbox shooter.

This line of reasoning defines character expansion and progression as the central element of the genre. This is primarily what I play RPGs for, so naturally this is mainly what I judge them on. Though I liked Fallout 3 enough to play it through 8 levels, I got tired of the lack of character progression, and the lack of things to buy. I was eventually also tired of the monotone grey-brown grunge everywhere, and not engaged by the story enough to play for its sake alone.

There is actually one particular design decision in Fallout 3 that stood out to me as pretty bizarre: the use of character progression choices as ‘humor features’ that add nothing but an amusing graphical effect. Considering how little choice there is to begin with in Fallout 3’s perk system, taking meaningful choices away for the sake of an ‘all-enemies-explode-on-death’ skill seems misguided. Not that there’s anything wrong with having a bit of black humor in a game, but it’s an issue when it crowds into a critical gameplay system like this. How much of an outcry would there be if, say, Blizzard gave Diablo 3’s Witch Doctor skills that do nothing except make dead enemies explode into rainbows? Not that Blizzard would ever do that, of course. They actually know how to design games, for one thing. (And no I’m not a fanboy)

The reason I didn’t much care for Fallout 3 is the same reason I haven’t been able to get into Mass Effect 2 or FF XIII either. ME2 to me is just a shooter with some dialogue options, and FF XIII is starting to look a whole lot like God of War with lots of menus. I’ve looked forward to it for years (not too obsessively, mind you) but I can’t get past the overwhelming linearity in just about every element. Even weapons are upgraded in a completely linear and boring fashion by just throwing EXP from random items at them.

To be continued…

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The Sting of a Flop

Friday, March 12th, 2010

Well, it looks like Unknown Sector has flopped in a big way. There was initially very little interest on FGL, so I pulled it down, put in my own ads, and it’s now getting about a fifth of the hits that Gun Nomads is still raking in. It stings to be sure, knowing that those two months accomplished little more than a lesson learned in humility. The fact that I partially saw it coming makes it both better and worse. Better because I now know what not to do, and worse because I could have done things differently. Admittedly, Unknown Sector has major flaws, and its lackluster performance is understandable. I believe its primary failure is being too shallow for a complicated game, if that makes any sense at all. There is really too little reward in terms of graphics, innovative gameplay, story and content for the amount of complexity you have to learn. Even with that said, it might still have made a decent free Flash game, but putting micro-transactions into it was definitely too much. It simply does not encourage the depth of interest required to start spending money. I feel like I’m shooting myself in the foot bashing my own game, but it happens to deserve it.

In retrospect I can see that I started making this game for the wrong reasons. I was never particularly enthusiastic about the idea and in fact didn’t bother planning some features until well into production. I made the thing mainly because I expected it to be a decent, easy to make game that could make use of some assets I had lying around. Of course it didn’t turn out to be that easy, but stubbornly I kept on going just to get it done. Lesson learned: don’t be afraid to switch gears when things don’t work out.

I’ve made four games so far, and yet I haven’t made any that I actually like to play. Nor have I been hugely enthusiastic about any of them even on a conceptual basis. Gun Nomads may have come pretty close, but it was my first Flash game and inevitably flawed because of it. Rise of the Tower was my first attempt at making a simple game, and I’ve never been able to get excited over simple games. Unknown Sector and my new Rise of the Tower spin-off also fit into that simple category. They have their charms but not the depth I need to get into a game.

I do have an idea for my next game that does possess quite a bit of depth, and yet shouldn’t be too difficult to make. It’s a strategy game with both turn-based and real-time elements, dozens of unit types and varied tactical options to ponder. My goal is to create the biggest, best looking and most fun strategy battles ever seen in flash gaming. And I intend to do it in only one month. Ambitious? You bet.

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