Thursday, February 27, 2014

Neverwinter Nights 2: Thoughts

Well, that was interesting. I've spent the last couple weeks playing Neverwinter Nights 2 and its first expansion (and the only one that's a direct sequel), Mask of the Betrayer and... wow, are those two very different stories. For this post I'm just going to talk about the original campaign (OC for short), since if I wrote about both it would have ended up being quite unwieldy

I first played NWN2 (just the OC) a long time ago - maybe '07? - and I'm pretty sure served as my introduction to Dungeons and Dragons and was one of the first party-based CRPGs I played (I might have played Knights of the Old Republic before it). It's a very typical CRPG story, what with the protagonist growing from humble beginnings into the Chosen One, and the main plot being mostly concerned with an ancient empire torn down by their own hubris kind of stuff. How NWN2 handled companions and character interaction did a lot to influence my expectations of later games - including the Bioware games I had yet to play.

Mechanically, it's passable at best. D&D wasn't really meant for a computer screen, but NWN2 is the best translation I've seen, and quite likely better than some later CRPGs that drew inspiration from it (Dragon Age, I'm looking at you). I do appreciate that it starts off slow, instead of doing like Baldur's Gate did and throwing you to the wolves at level 1 (literally). That said, it's a bit TOO slow. Act 1 and it's artificial plot gate are probably half the game, and easily the least interesting part of it. I could have done without the hours and hours of politics and fetch quests. I'm not saying the main storyline is the best thing ever, but it's significantly better than playing guard.

Later on, though, you're awarded your very own castle and troops to control. Crossroad Keep is awesome and feels awesome. It's a bit buggy, because Obsidian, but it's just COOL. Training your troops up, getting them equipment, sending them out on missions, and just generally becoming the best Knight-Captain ever is pretty awesome, including how it's implemented in the endgame.

The story is nothing special, really, but I've always enjoyed a good hero's journey, and aside from that ridiculous plot door (I forgot just how long that really is. It's around 15-20 hours), I don't think there's anything particularly egregious. I liked how Jerro's Haven was presented, both from a story presentation and a gameplay one, and from then on Act 3 just kind of keeps ramping up to the end. The siege of Crossroad Keep was a pretty interesting sequence as well.

Overall, it's a pretty.. average game, I guess (Except for its length!). Sometimes that's not bad, though, especially in a genre that doesn't really have that many entries. I certainly enjoyed it enough myself.

Next time, however, I'm going to talk about Mask of the Betrayer, which is anything but typical.

Monday, January 13, 2014

VVVVVV: Thoughts

Wow, I haven't posted anything on this blog since last April? Man, I should fix that. So I am!

I'm planning on writing at least one post about every new game I play this year, and here's the first, for VVVVVV.

VVVVVV is a puzzle platformer designed by Terry Cavanagh (who also did Super Hexagon, which I've enjoyed immensely over the past few months) that I picked up for like 30 cents in the holiday steam sale. I'd played the demo before, and I've played several flash games with similar conceits.

The main mechanic in the game is a simple gravity switch - notably, however, you can only activate it when you're actually on the ground (or the ceiling). The objective is basically to explore and find your missing crewmates, puzzling your way through gauntlets of laser beams and spikes and such. There's also 20 collectibles that serve as much more difficult bonus challenges.

The story and art style are both pretty unremarkable, but I enjoyed my time with the game as far as it went. There's a definite speedrunning bent to it (including a time trial mode), and I believe there are also plenty of community made map packs and such, so if it does grab your interest there's plenty of content beyond the hour or two a basic playthrough will last.

Controls are THE most important part of a platformer, and they seemed a bit finicky to me at first - lots of platformers have momentum when you're running, so you don't just stop when you stop hitting the key, and sometimes it doesn't feel right. That said, I definitely got used to it, only coming close to ragequitting a couple of times. I think the most times I died on a single puzzle was... 28?

Overall, it's a nice, super cheap flash-style game. I especially appreciate the presence of the map packs - it's a good way of just providing more content for a game that people enjoy.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Random Musings: Leveling

A while ago (a few months actually) I was thinking about the leveling system in Skyrim (because I really like analyzing Skyrim for some reason), and the thought occurred to me: Why have player levels at all? It wouldn't even be hard to remove them entirely - you get a perk in a skill tree every time you get 10 levels in that tree, and you get a point in each of the three main attributes for every level in a related school (warrior skills - health, mage skills - magicka, thief/rogue skills - stamina, following the paradigm already in the game.) This even ends up fixing a lot of the problems I have with Skyrim's perk system - the arbitrary level requirements for perks, with a bit of retooling, the tendency to never put perks in certain trees because of game balance (I'm looking at you, speech), and probably a few others I haven't thought of, while simultaneously having an absolutely equivalent result to the current mechanics. 

I've never actually really liked the idea of discrete 'levels'. It just feels so arbitrary. I've always appreciated the Elder Scrolls' 'get better by doing' mechanics, and they make it extremely easy to get rid of player levels entirely - although it'd be a lot harder for most RPGs.

In any case, let's take a look at what player levels do for you. They give you a very tangible goal and reward, usually a fairly substantial step straight up, maybe some sidesteps.  This allows the player to gain a sense of progression, sometimes to ridiculous degrees - how many JRPGs have you played where you start out dealing double digit damage and end up dealing hundreds of thousands every hit by the end? It separates controlling your character's skill progression and actually playing into discrete chunks, letting you optimize your build.

The big cons, in my opinion, are an encouragement of grinding (a practice that should be a capital offense in any competent RPG, in my opinion. THOU SHALT NOT REQUIRE GRINDING) and a total disconnect between actions and progression - 'Oh, you just hit some arbitrary milestone by mining that rock or talking to that dude? I GUESS I'M BETTER AT KILLING PEOPLE NOW!'

The pros are ease of design and balance, because it allows you to be MUCH stricter with player progression, and increased precision of progression for the player. It's much harder to metagame a skill-based rather than player level-based system, I feel - a con for some and a pro for others.

I'm not saying that getting rid of player levels is something every RPG ever should do, but I think it's surprising more haven't experimented with shifting the emphasis away from them, especially considering the runaway success of Skyrim. Perhaps a new breed of RPG is coming? (It usually is)

Friday, April 19, 2013

Random Musings: Crafting

So I was thinking about crafting systems earlier and what I don't like about them - specifically, the grinding and the spammy, impersonal nature of it. In most of these systems, you will make hundreds or thousands, sometimes more, of just a few items, and you can sometimes make dozens in a single sitting. Most of the time any alterations you CAN make are either not actually associated with the smithing or rather superficial, and rarely is any individual item significant.

I'd much rather have a system where each and every item you make is significant and somewhat unique, even your very first iron dagger or whatever. (actually, I'd rather have every piece of loot and every enemy be significant too, but hey you can't have everything so let's focus on crafting today.)

In real life, no handmade item is exactly the same, yet in many games your character might as well be a modern factory making items out of replaceable parts. There's absolutely no personality or character, either to your works as a whole or each individual piece. This seems odd, given what I see as the inspiration for such mechanics - named weapons in many epic fantasy stories, such as the archetypal Excalibur, and often forging scenes for such weapons.

I've never liked how variety and progression is accomplished through material tiers in many games, either. If you don't have variety in each tier, any customization is pretty much totally lost. There's a big difference between chainmail and scale mail and plate, and most of the time these are completely ignored in favor of just having 'armor', despite there being a world of difference between, say, a chain shirt and full plate mail. I'm okay with some tiering, but making cosmetic changes tied to material is just ridiculous, as long as they're the same basic type (like leather or metal)

Fixing this on a cosmetic level would be a huge step for roleplaying immersion, in my opinion, and wouldn't be too difficult. Just make a simple design-your-own sword system that lets you pick a blade, crossguard, and hilt, name it, and boom. For armor just having more styles available than 'armor' would go a long way too. It doesn't need to be too extensive, but not having every player look literally exactly the same when wearing crafted gear would be nice - especially in single player games where identifying another player's equipment is irrelevant.

Obviously mechanically is a lot more difficult. I had the thought of having a minigame where you actually make the item could be cool, along with balancing the economy and available materials in such a way that a single weapon is significant instead of just trash - it takes longer to make and the materials are more difficult to come by but the end result is a bigger deal as well. One thing you could do is have each of the choices mentioned above give certain stats, although making that significant and interesting would require a certain complexity of combat system most games just don't have. Armor can either have mobility scores that make taking certain actions slower, differing amounts of armor on different areas, or just simply different effectiveness against different types of armors (most games that seriously focus on melee combat already do the second two).

There's a lot of things you could do with smithing and other crafting systems that we don't even try to do. I know it's complicated, but surely we can do something more interesting than making 50 iron daggers and selling them for a pittance?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Disclosure Alert, Week 1

I mentioned in my last post I was doing a Let's Play of Alpha Protocol with a couple of friends. I think I'm going to be doing weekly posts about the LP and AP in general, although I haven't decided Mondays or Fridays yet. In any case, here's the first one!

AP is an interesting game. In the last episode of the past week, Yancy spends most of the episode in a tutorial - for dialogue. Not many games have a dialogue system that could even attempt to take that long explaining it.

Most of Alpha Protocol's mechanics are uninspired at best and totally broken at worst, and the terrible port doesn't make it any better (NO HOTKEYS?), but the dialogue mechanics are what drew me to the game in the first place. The game becomes all about manipulating others' opinion of you to get them to act in a certain way.

Many games have dialogue mechanics where dialogue choices serve as tools to overcome an obstacle rather than just progression through the story, but very few of them encourage deliberately manipulating characters in all your interactions with them throughout the entire game in the same way as Alpha Protocol does.

In any case, stay tuned to to see the episodes as they come up! (The first of this week's episodes should be coming out sometime this afternoon)

Friday, February 15, 2013

What I'm Working On

Hey everyone, Aldowyn here. So this post is meant as an update on everything that I'm currently working on and as an introduction for new followers (Hi new followers!)

The main places you can find me are currently here (although I should post more, I'm currently going for one content post a week) and on twitter. I do have a youtube channel as well, but I don't currently have anything going on. There's a few other places you might run in to me - if you see someone named Aldowyn, it's probably me, feel free to ask! Actually, feel free to ask in general - if you have a question you'd like to ask me, just send me something on twitter or leave a comment here!

As for a bit of personal information, I'm a current college student aspiring to become a game designer. I enjoy pretty much every type of game, but the ones I enjoy analyzing the most tend to be RPGs, especially dialogue and character heavy ones. I'm especially interested in mechanics that attempt to model complex social interactions, which also show up in strategy games like Civilization, Crusader Kings II, and the upcoming At The Gates (more on that one later, for now I'll just recommend you check out the kickstarter.)

My main active project at the moment is a Let's Play called Disclosure Alert, which is on Youtube at the channel DisclosureAlertShow. It's a multiple-host Let's Play of Alpha Protocol with a couple friends of mine, anaphysik and newdarkcloud, modeled after Shamus Young and co.'s Spoiler Warning. We're currently on a short, school-mandated break (4 tests in 8 days, sorry!) right after our first week. Check it out if you're interested in branching RPG and dialogue mechanics, seeing me surrounded by trolls, or if you're bored and want something new to watch.

I was also on a podcast recently with GameCritHulk and others (including newdarkcloud) where we repeatedly sighed and complained and otherwise talked about various corporate failures over the preceding week. You can find that here.

As far as upcoming projects, I have a video series on game design that is in the works, although I can't actually get it out until I have a decent set of headphones with a good microphone. I don't have much to add other than what is already seen on my previous blogpost on the project. I also have an XCOM series currently only at the idea stage, again waiting on a chance to get a decent microphone, which you can read about (and volunteer for) here.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Editorial: Day 1 DLC

 Now, before I get started, I want to stress that this is an EDITORIAL. This is my opinion on the subject. Yours is probably different. Feel free to voice your own and critique mine, I'm sure it's got its own logical fallacies somewhere.

Kotaku published an article earlier today with the headline 'Dead Space 3 has 11 Pieces of Day One DLC', and the subtitle 'Start saving those pennies, folks'. Now, at this point a lot of people are already raging. "DAY ONE DLC, RAAAGE, WHY ISN'T IT PART OF THE GAME BLAHBLAHBLAH". The implicit (and sometimes explicit) connotation is that day one DLC is somehow 'ethically wrong'.

I disagree. It CAN be, but it isn't inherently. DLC, especially Day 1 DLC, should be 'extra', and not required in the main game. Just because it was done before the game was released doesn't automatically mean it HAS to be sold with the game itself. What would make a game with Day 1 DLC different than a game made by a slower team who made the same DLC after release? You're not buying their time and effort before launch, you're buying a product that you reasonably expect to be complete. Of course, you have to define 'complete', so let's do that.

The problem arises when the DLC is not 'extra', when it's a core part of the main game. This is (supposedly) the difference between Zaeed from Mass Effect 2 (who I recall very few people complaining too vociferously about), and Javik from Mass Effect 3, whose non-inclusion in the base game actually caused some people to boycott the game. (Controversy started early with Mass Effect 3). People thought Javik would 'complete' the themes, narrative, or whatever of the game, and thus people thought he should have been on the main disc. I'll agree with that sentiment. (Assuming he IS vital to the game, but that's another topic)

The way I see it, there are two main types of DLC (possibly more but I'm only discussing two). One is purely game-y stuff - like the weapon packs both Dead Space 3 and ME2 and 3 have. The other is 'actual' new content, like most of the DLC for Skyrim or the story-based DLC in the Mass Effect series.

As for the first, I think it's fine to leave that out of the game as long as it's not designed to be an integral part of the game. It's easy to have weapons that are a little OP or offer some slightly different pros and cons than those in the base game and not miss them at all in the base game. It's also definitely possible to have a game that's unreasonably difficult or limiting without the progression those weapons provide. Most F2P microtransaction models work on this principle - totally fair in a F2P game, since that's how they make money, but in a game you've already paid for, weapons like this should only be to provide you with an 'extra edge'.

The second is dodgier. There's a much fuzzier line between 'extra' and 'necessary' content with new mechanical and story content, since in either case they should be integrated into the content already present. Many people were extremely upset with Javik's exclusion from the main game because they believed he would be quite important to the progression of the main plot, while Zaeed was quite obviously totally extra.

In any case, my point in all of this is that it's not as black and white as many people seem to think it is. You are NOT obligated to everything that is developed before release. You're obligated to a finished product. If the exclusion of Day 1 DLC content makes the game not work properly, mechanically or narratively or whatever, THEN it's 'wrong'. Otherwise... get off your high horse. You don't have to buy it (the game or the DLC) if you don't want it.

P.S. I know all this Dead Space 3 stuff is making people mad, especially all put together, but I have yet to see something that is GUARANTEED to make the game unplayable without it, or even inferior. If the balance is the way it SHOULD be, then all this extra stuff should be essentially OP while allowing you to have a normal balanced experience without getting any of it.

That said, it's very possible for them to go the F2P route where it's almost impossible to advance without buying new content, but I hope they aren't THAT dumb. We can also hope they don't make it particularly intrusive. I will admit it's pretty much impossible to tell ahead of time, but this is prime 'vote for your dollar' territory. Assuming you actually want to play DS3, go buy it, and then if it turns out they DID screw up the balance, make a stink and get a refund instead of buying the extras. They'll pay attention.