Posts Tagged ‘ gamesetwatch

Caught in Translation

My GameSetWatch column returns with a piece on DLC for Napoleon: Total War. I couldn’t resist checking out the “Peninsular Campaign” Creative Assembly released a month or so ago, because I could not for the life of me imagine how Creative Assembly were going to translate that fascinating, messy campaign to the highly conventional, orderly Napoleon: Total War campaign engine.

Now that I’ve spent a lot of time playing with it, I have to say “The Peninsular Campaign” is a minor masterpiece of scenario design and maybe the best campaign yet for Napoleon. I explain why over at GameSetWatch.

My interest with “Keys to the Kingdom” is one of translation. Games so often take their inspiration, their theme, from complicated real-world subjects. But it’s always interesting to see what designers choose to emphasize. Sometimes they do nothing more than take their appearance from history, as in Empire: Total War. That game had a great deal of 18th century flavoring, but very little of the gameplay bore any resemblance to what you might find in a history of the Seven Years’ War. It was a bad costume-drama without a shred of substance beneath it.

On the other hand, a flight of sci-fi fantasy like Sins of a Solar Empire made a valiant and partially successful effort to make players role-play their empires by introducing co-operative mechanics into an ultimately competitive game. “Frienemy” mechanics are familiar in board games, but unusual in an RTS.

When I write about something like the “Peninsular Campaign” DLC or Europa Universalis III, I try to make the reader see the connections that I see. That these design decisions don’t just come out of the ether, and they are not purely driven by a desire to create a good game. There are a lot of ways to reach that destination, but the choices along the way are often made with an eye toward something that happens in the real-world. The goal with games like this is not just to give the player a good time, but to make him face decisions that other people, in other times, also faced. Games like this are, in part, attempts to let you live the fantasy of being a desktop Wellington or Richelieu. Much of what makes them unique and interesting is owed to the negotiation between game design and the concepts being translated into design.

Anyway, go check out the new piece, and leave comments on it at GSW.

Another Key to the Kingdom

Earlier this year, when the TMA crew and I covered the Diplomacy expansion to Sins of a Solar Empire, I saw a lot of intriguing ideas that I wanted to explore further. So I spent the next couple months playing the game a lot more with MK and some friends, and trying to get a feel for the system. I promised I’d write more about it, and I finally have: it’s the subject of my latest GSW column.

My feelings about the expansion evolved as I spent more time with it. While my first reaction to the diplomacy system was unenthusiastic, I really missed it when a recurring bug forced me to play a lot of Sins: Entrenchment. Without really noticing, I’d become really dependent on my ability to communicate with other players and AIs via the game’s diplomatic options. When I could go back to playing Diplomacy, it was with a new appreciation for the language of favors and reprisals that Diplomacy opened up.

I think Diplomacy is a fascinating attempt to revitalize and deepen an established game, and so I devoted the latest installment of my GameSetWatch column, “Keys to the Kingdom”, to looking at the expansion’s purpose and effects on gameplay. Go take a look at it and let me know you think. Plus, I’d be really interested to hear what other people have made of the Diplomacy expansion, and how much my experience matches theirs.

If you feel like commenting on the piece, please do so over at GSW.

A New Column and Addenda

For the past several weeks I’ve been working on a new column for GameSetWatch, and it went up today on Gamasutra. It will probably be appearing on GameSetWatch in the next few days. My goal is to examine how social and political issues are translated into videogame elements, and to identify the assumptions that underpin a developer’s approach to those issues.

With this first piece, I stayed on terrain I know pretty well: Europa Universalis III. It’s such a rich game that I could have focused on any number of elements, but what I really found fascinating was how it represents sociopolitical change. Here is a game that starts in the twilight of the Middle Ages and concludes on the edge of industrialization, and the player has to guide his country through all the upheavals that occurred within that historical span. How does it describe that process, and the role of government within it? That was the question I attempted to answer, and you can let me know how well I did with it.

One thing I fervently wished as I formatted the post is that EU3 screenshots did not all look so hellishly boring. While I find its aesthetics wonderful, it takes about the least interesting pictures possible: “Look at this exciting popup! Craaaazy!” The irony, of course, is that people who ignore EU3 because it looks boring are missing one of the most exciting games in strategy.

EU3 aficionados might notice that the story I tell in this column is a bit condensed. I had to cut out some of the context and some of specific events that contributed to the wave of misfortune that befell me. Early drafts read too much like, well, a blog entry. The important part was to illustrate the effects of the game’s mechanics, not give Gama/GSW a detailed after-action report.

I must also admit that my story shows EU3′s mechanics at their best. Readers and TMA listeners might recall that when we did a show on Heir to the Throne, both Tom and Troy had misgivings about how well the stability mechanic worked over the long haul. I argued that the mechanics worked fine. Having played much, much more of the game, I can see now that my fellow panelists were correct. In the end, a decent EU3 player will break the game wide open.

A full campaign in EU3 covers 421 years, but the mechanics really only work for about half that. Once the player has had some time to start working his will on the gameworld and provide the kind of strategic continuity that his state’s historical counterpart never possessed, the mechanics start to break down. They cannot overcome the money and power the player will eventually possess. The challenges stay the same, but the player’s capacity to meet them only increases.

Truthfully, I think the problem would be solved if Paradox changed the stability mechanic. Rather than having it act like a series of steps, it should be more like a steady slope. If the player wants to keep increasing stability past the level equilibrium point, he should be forced to keep putting forth effort to do so. At the highest levels of stability, the marginal cost should be dissuasive. As things stand now, once the player gets his society to the highest stability level, it stays there until something bad happens.

Anyway, during those turbulent decades that follow the beginning of a new campaign, those mechanics work well, and make some trenchant observations about just how national mismanagement can happen even under responsible rulers. EU3 does a wonderful job of puncturing the judgments of the armchair emperor. Here’s how it pulls it off.

The Point Is to Be Challenged – Part 3

continued from Part 2

Having and Eating Cake That Is a Lie

Denby, unlike Pulsipher, actually seems to like games and the people who play them. He argues that it’s not an either-or choice between accessibility and challenge. Admitting that there are many games he’s rubbish at, he asks if it’s so unreasonable to expect developers make a “Denby mode” available. While he’s cruising through on a fail-proof difficulty level, I can still have the brutal and demanding experience that I (occasionally) love.

It’s nice to think that gamers of all skills and tastes can unite over games of all stripes, but I have seen precious little evidence that this is the case. Denby uses Bioshock as an example of a game that went out of its way to be friendly to less skilled or less patient gamers. It allowed for instant respawning after death (thanks to the Vita-Chambers that littered each level), and was a breeze to finish on the easiest difficulty setting. Failure was hard to come by, and it wasn’t punished. Yet hardcore gamers still had fun with it on higher difficult levels.

Or did they? I enjoyed Bioshock immensely when I first played it, but “does it have legs?” Not really. I have played Bioshock one and a half times. Compare that to its predecessor, System Shock 2, which I played at least five times and still consider the more interesting game, if woefully unpolished compared to Bioshock. While admitting the truth in Yahtzee’s characterization of SS2′s difficulty as ranging from “hard to murderous”, the game also featured more interesting decisions for the player to make. There were a number of workable approaches to how you could tackle the game, but what you couldn’t do was take advantage of all of them. So you could be a heavily-armed soldier, blasting his way through enemies and obstacles, but then you couldn’t use psionic powers (which were especially useful in places where ammo became scarce). Conversely, you could pour a lot of character development points (cybermodules) into technical skills like hacking and research, which could ease your passage through the game and reduce the combat required.

No matter how you built your character, you made painful trade-offs. If you tried to avoid making any trade-offs, you ended up with a hopelessly mediocrity that would begin having serious trouble in the midgame. However, it also made the game slightly different every time I played it. Furthermore, it was inherently challenging to play through the game with one of these characters, because some things were always easier while some things were suddenly more difficult. My marine could smash and blast his way through hordes of the Many, but he couldn’t break security barriers or hack the item dispensers. My naval technician could make the ship his ally by turning the security system into a friend, and he could break into any weapons locker or vending machine, but he had a tough time with some of the heavy-duty enemies. The two experiences were so different as to be practically different games. Another example of this kind of game would be Deus Ex.

The complexity and challenge inherent to System Shock 2 was stripped out of Bioshock, making the game friendlier to a Denby-style player but ultimately shallower. Your character could do anything and everything in Bioshock, making him effectively invincible. This makes the experience identical every time I play. Furthermore, higher difficult levels do not offer anything interesting. There is no way of making the game more interesting than the breezy experience Denby is having on the easiest setting, because that’s how the game was designed. Higher difficulty levels simply make the enemies more difficult: they absorb more shots  and hit harder, but the solution is hardly a stimulating challenge. You just shoot them more. The difference between easy and hard, then, is “kill them” vs. “kill them a lot.”

It’s easier for developers to create interesting challenges while they are designing the game, and much harder to bring it in ex post facto through difficulty options. Furthermore, there’s a point at which challenges inherent to a design cannot be mitigated by difficulty levels without breaking the game.

Ultimately, I cannot grant the premise that a game should be designed with the goal of being enjoyable or completeable for every potential player, and that seems to be the logical extreme where both Denby and Pulsipher converge. You can’t please everyone, and gaming is never going to disprove that truism. It would be disastrous to try.

The Point Is to Be Challenged – Part 1

When did Game, Set, Watch declare war on difficult videogames?

At the start of September, GSW published a piece by Lewis Pulsipher which argued that gaming’s great failing  is that people actually have to play games in order to enjoy them. If only we could make “play” optional, we’d be as big as the movie industry, a goal whose worth is self-evident to Pulsipher.

Last week, Lewis Denby wrote about his lamentable ineptitude in most games, and how they do not adequately provide for the extreme left tail of the “skill” bell curve.

These two arguments share the belief that games need to stop persuading people that they are not worth the bother, but are otherwise very different. Pulsipher’s argument veers into the realm of absurdity when he quotes from noted videogame expert Roger Ebert’s review of Terminator Salvation: “Movies that resemble video games are often panned by film critics, but recently the well-known critic Roger Ebert said, about the movie Terminator Salvation, ‘It gives you all the pleasure of a video game without the bother of having to play it.’ (He gave it three stars out of four, quite a bit better than the Metacritic average — this was not a criticism.)” Pulsipher thinks he has found our Northwest Passage.

There are numerous problems with this assertion, however, not least of which is the fact that Ebert gave Terminator Salvation two stars, not three, and the text of the review is scathing. After describing the dearth of actual characters, and the hopelessly muddled plot, Ebert concludes by saying, “…most of the running time is occupied by action sequences, chase sequences, motorcycle sequences, plow-truck sequences, helicopter sequences, fighter-plane sequences, towering android sequences and fistfights. It gives you all the pleasure of a video game without the bother of having to play it.” In context, then, the line that Pulsipher offers on behalf of his argument is revealed to be a damning judgment of an inferior film. Ebert is saying that these empty pleasures, a string of action set pieces devoid of meaning, are the domain of videogames.

To which Pulsipher shouts, “Amen!”

Pulsipher wants games to get the kind of audience that big summer blockbusters enjoy, and thinks the way forward is to eliminate “the bother of having to play.” In other words, we must make videogames enjoyable for people who do not actually enjoy videogames.

Lewis Denby, on the other hand, raises an issue that every gamer has encountered at some point: games often become just too damned hard, either intentionally or through crummy, counterintuitive design. After opening with a description of the archetypal “disastrous adventure game puzzle” (although a better example can be found in Gabriel Knight 3 as told by Erik Wolpaw), Denby has examples of how gruesome difficulty spikes crop up in other genres:

Take the first-person shooter where every door is locked except the one you have to progress through, which isn’t signposted one bit. Or how about the RPG that demands hours of grinding away at repetitive side-quests before you can crack on with the story? There’s always the inevitable section in every platformer in the world where you’ve to precisely leap across tiny stepping stones above a sea of fire, where jumping just an inch too far means restarting the level for the eight hundredth time.

This might have been okay when games were purely about bettering yourself, or bettering other players. But in a climate where the medium is as much about storytelling, atmosphere and immersion as any other factors, it’s a serious issue that needs to be stamped out.

I don’t think anyone is going to stand up and say, “Wait a minute, now, I happen to like my games to be obtuse and sadistically punishing. It just makes my success on the 173rd try all the more meaningful!” Extreme examples of bad design are easily recognized as such, and won’t attract many defenders. So I have no problem agreeing with Denby that this kind of experience has to go.

Nevertheless, I have two problems with his argument. The first is that it is inherently subjective. Videogame difficulty exists on a broad spectrum, and it would be impossible to agree where games should fall. There are too many shades of gray. While there are extreme examples of bad design that no reasonable person could defend, like the “mustache for a moped” puzzle in Gabriel Knight 3, such cases are rare. Denby himself pointed out in a chat via Twitter that what one person would call patenly unfair, another would call a bracing test of skill.

My other objection is that Denby does not really make an effort to separate “fair challenge” from “excessive difficulty.” We can all agree that “excessive difficulty” is a bad thing, but we need to know where and how a game crosses that line. Otherwise we simply admonish developers to “design better games” without offering any direction about how they can do that.

Leigh Alexander suggested during a Twitter debate that we distinguish between “intentional” and “unintentional” difficulty. That would have us discussing the degree to which developers ensure that players are being challenged by only what developer intended to be challenging. Developers would have made a mistake if players get hung up by something that nobody on the development side ever expected would be problematic.

While acknowledging the merits of that approach, I still think it’s important to draw a line between what is challenging as opposed to what is merely difficult. Challenge is why I play games, and why I have never for a second felt that they waste my time. I have no problem with a game that bars my progress until I play with greater skill, or come up with a clever solution to a problem. So long as I feel that I am being forced to improve as the game raises the bar for performance, I am entirely happy to try, try again.

What I cannot stand is a game that demands perfection, endless repetition, and blind flailing until I stumble upon a completely irrational and arbitrary way of advancing. Nor do I think these flaws solely exist in the eye of the beholder. You can recognize where a game ceases to ask for mental or physical improvement and simply bars your progress.

continues with Part 2