Tuesday, November 20, 2012

XCOM series update

So several of you gave some input last time, and I've been thinking of some specific ideas since then. The idea at this point is basically to be giving you guys a view of the war as if you were actual civilians - so there will be news articles of various kinds, official government announcements, classic 'propaganda', maybe even a presidential announcement or two for big things (most notably the fact that OMG THERE ARE ALIENS!!!1!).

You'll notice some of that is text based, some is video/image based. There's going to be very few consistent sources of reliable information - I'm going to be deliberately trying to mislead you guys as to what is going on in the actual campaign, making it seem better than it is. Of course, if it's going really well there's no reason to do that, is there? So I'm thinking maybe classic difficulty, although that depends on how good I am. NOT Ironman, but I'll only reload if I wipe because of something dumb - I won't even reload on all wipes, and anything with survivors I won't.

Playing on classic, it's entirely possible I won't win, but I WILL play to the VERY end, and we'll see how well the propaganda can keep up the facade of success. Actually, it might be preferable if I DON'T win, although I'll certainly try.

Oh, as for when I start... I'll probably wait to start posting until January, although I may start a couple weeks before Christmas if I have enough of a backlog of content by then. Probably not.

So, lots of different ideas for things I can do, so very varied content, some video and some audio. The question for you guys for this post is what do you think of classic as the difficulty? I'm thinking that should work pretty well, but normal is an option. I can also do Ironman if you think that's important.

Of course, if you have any other ideas (ideas for specific content is welcome, although I haven't mentioned everything), feel free to offer them as well! Signups are still open, and will be at least until I start, probably later. (If you're nice you'll post them on the initial post, here.)

Monday, November 19, 2012

Binding of Isaac vs FTL: A comparison of roguelikes

First off, in the definition of roguelike (the only one that really works for both examples) is a game that requires repeated playthroughs (generally ending with death) in order to learn how to play it properly. This is the genre that made up the term 'losing in fun'. Also, binding of Isaac is ... kind of an arcade shooter roguelike with permanent powerups and other items. FTL is a pausable space sim roguelike where you control obtainable crew and weapons on an upgradable starship. Now, on to the introduction:

Somehow a debate on Twitter over Binding of Isaac came up, with JPH (@ninjagameden) complaining on Twitter (that's not how the debate started, BoI was a tangent) about it and other people trying to convince him "HEY it's not the worst game ever it's totally AWESOME!", eventually it came down to the point where JPH says that he HAS to use the wiki to know what everything does. Let's figure out how much of a problem that is.

Somewhat later, TimePyradox came in with some issues concerning FTL, and how it has specific builds needed to beat the boss that are specific enough to need wiki-ing. That's not really true (sorry), but FTL has other similar problems, and I'll discuss that below.

There's a lot of analysis here about these very specific problems, so this should be an interesting experiment. I'll have an answer as to which issue is the more serious one at the end. Now, one at a time, let's get into this. Binding of Isaac first.

Binding of Isaac
JPH's problem is he gets an item and he doesn't know what it does, and there's too many items for him to be able to learn through repeated plays, so you have to use the wiki during play to know what all the items does. I don't actually know if this is true or not - I'm sure some would agree, but twitter has accepted that he needs the wiki. (note, him specifically. This kind of thing depends on your capability of dedicating time to the game on a fairly consistent basis in order to learn the items well enough not to use a wiki)

He is arguing that FTL does not have this problem, because FTL tells you exactly what each item does, and here's the key part, BEFORE you get it. In Binding of Isaac, they don't tell them until after you get them at best, and never at worst. (Well, technically when you use it. That doesn't help when you get smashed by a giant foot because you're the only target)

In some ways, I think that labeling the items is irrelevant, because if it tells you after you get the item that's fine, as long as it tells you, because you pick up every item. The way Binding of Isaac supposedly works (I haven't played it) is that you take what you get, and develop a play style developed around what you get. Any combination of items (and you get a very specific number of items, usually, due to the way it's set up.) should be viable, as long as you know how to use that combination. Experience obviously helps with that, but it's not NECESSARY.  You also get a pretty definite number of items, each of which benefits you in a supposedly equal way (although some are tradeoffs) Note tarot cards (a specific type of consumable item that do something when you use them) are an exception, but there's a relatively limited number (like 16? Less than 20 more than a dozen) Pills are ALSO an exception, but they have different effects every game, like potions in a classic roguelike, and typically won't hurt you directly in any way. 
This issue (there are others that could be brought up, I'm sure, but this is the big one I've heard discussed)  is relatively simple and easy to fix, so if that's the worst one, then Binding of Isaac is pretty well off in this comparison.


Pyradox's argument is that the builds required are specific enough that you need a wiki or spreadsheet to figure it out. If that was true, then that was bad. But I disagree that you DO. (He mentioned only experience players would when I mentioned this.) I've actually played FTL (I don't think I've written anything on it yet? I should fix that), and I asked Ranneko about this (Thanks Ranneko!), and as far as I can tell, this is just false. Specific builds that need memorization just don't exist. All sorts of tactics are close to equally useful, and you can beat the boss with all sorts of end builds. You DO need to be highly upgraded with full health, high quality weapons, a full crew, and things like that, but that's to be expected at a boss.

The problem, as far as I can tell, is that it's just a massive, MASSIVE difficulty hike from everything else. The rest of the game's difficulty curve as rough plateaus for each sector, increasing moderately whenever you go to a new sector, and then it just JUMPS at the boss. It's unreasonably difficult. It's so much harder new players will likely reach a skill level where they almost always reach the boss but never/rarely KILL the boss. (I'm pretty close to that level) This is an issue. JPH actually mentioned this in reference to Binding of Isaac, but the difficulty of a game (as an absolute, independent of progression. More on that in a second) should progress as a fairly steady incline, and rewards should roughly follow that. Character ability does the same thing in a progression based game, and the difference between those results in a 'perceived difficulty'.

The problem arises here: The absolute difficulty may increase by half again, or double. But the 'perceived' difficulty goes up by much, MUCH more. For comparison (this number is completely academic since there are no numbers involved), that value could be ten times as much as before (Note: as a difference, not a ratio. See post-post-script), the boss is that much harder. I don't think I need to tell you why that's a problem.

There are a few possible solutions, such as lowering the difficulty of the boss, and some other problems, like how it's the same every time (that's more subjective), but these are irrelevant. You can't fix this by something as simple as adding some text to the game, so I'd consider it a more 'fundamental' issue than the one discussed for Binding of Isaac.

Both games when played properly rely upon the experience of multiple plays to become proficient at them, so they do what they're supposed to as roguelikes. (note: FTL does almost exclusively, while Binding of Isaac also has twitch skill and other things that you need to play well. I'm discussing the roguelike mechanics specifically) I'm discussing two specific issues here, and considering they are some of the dominant reasons these games are NOT good (or fun, really. That's the hard part, distinguishing), I think that's a fair (but fundamentally flawed, it doesn't consider NUMBER of issues, just the single worst one) way of judging which is a better game. So qualifiers abound.

I'd say that the comparison of these two issues, which in Binding of Isaac is easily fixed and it's harder to do so for FTL, makes FTL an 'objectively' 'worse' game. This DOES NOT MEAN that it is less fun. It means that its systems are objectively WORSE. Any definition of 'fun' is inherently subjective, and just because a game is inherently 'worse' in this way doesn't mean that it's a problem. Although it is a problem. I would make the observation that they are LINKED, though. Actually, the idea that a game being 'good' is linked to it being 'fun' is pretty obvious, the issue is that when you ask if a game is 'good' you're ACTUALLY asking if it's 'fun'.

Note that JPH was completely unable to handle playing Binding of Isaac because of its obfuscation of mechanics due to a somewhat personal issue with not seeing information, while almost everyone who plays FTL notices how much harder the boss is, although only some people quit over it. For JPH, the game was less fun because of a certain issue he had with playing it, one roughly analogous to that of a colorblind person. (JPH: I'm not saying you're colorblind. Or even that your brain has something 'wrong' with it like a colorblind's person's eyes are. Brains are more complicated than eyes) The issues with the boss make FTL less fun for EVERYONE, making it... a worse game, objectively. So if you don't have the problem with not knowing what stuff does that JPH did in Binding of Isaac, and personal preference is irrelevant (unlikely), theoretically (THEORETICALLY) Binding of Isaac should be more 'fun'. Assuming 'fun' is dependent on a game's systems being consistent and following some kind of logical progression.

P.S. Don't forget to check out my post with my idea for an XCOM Propaganda series! It's the very last post :P Taking signups for soldiers and ideas!

P.P.S. *MATH NERD ALERT* Actually, what I  called a 'difference' between the 'absolute difficulty' and isn't a difference at all, since you can't absolutely define difficulty. Well, I suppose you could, but it makes less sense that way. I'd call it a ratio. Absolute difficulty and character ability have the same unit (strength, basically. Like a Challenge Rating in D&D, applied to the PCs as well), and the ratio of those results in a difficulty, with 1 being, say, average. (You have to define 1 and average is good because it allows lower values and higher much more easily, making the whole system more flexible and easier to use) Note that a difference in that case would ALSO work, but is inferior for the same reason that facing 22 CR as a 20 CR party is harder than facing 10 CR as an 8 CR party. (or more drastically, a 3 CR enemy as a 1 CR party) Note the ratios: 1.1, 1.25, and 3.00. (It might not be that bad, because performance is randomly variable and CR doesn't necessarily follow a linear scale of ability)

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

XCOM Propaganda Series - Ideas

So, there's a bunch of people in my internet circle doing XCOM stuff. (Jarenth here and Krellen here), and I particularly enjoyed my first playthrough and I was wondering what I could do that was unique from theirs. One is a traditional LP from the perspective of the player, and one is a narrative driven one from the perspective of the commander.

I had the idea on twitter of a series that is propaganda published either by XCOM itself or by the individual nations. Think like... the Starship Troopers movie. The idea of downplaying the alien threat while emphasizing the heroic actions of the soldiers seems like it could make a fairly compelling entertaining series. I'm not sure what format I'd like to do it in, there are obvious issues with both a text format (here on the blog) and a video format on my youtube channel. First off, I'm not sure at all I have a voice remotely suited to this kind of video, although I could practice a bit and maybe pull it off. There's also the question of variety of shots - I mean, once you've seen a trooper headshot a xeno once, you've seen them all. Some clever editing, clips/shots, and textual/audio context may solve this problem (Basically it just means I have to actually work to make it interesting :D)

I'm pretty sure I'm going to be doing this in some form, although if it doesn't work out I may convert to a traditional LP, or have that going and still do these sometimes (I'm thinking I could do videos focusing on big tech advancements and the introduction of enemies) Part of this post is opening it up to everyone to suggest ideas or suggestions, anything of that nature is welcome. Obviously feedback on whether to do it in text or video would be extremely helpful.

Also if you want to be in said series, post your preferred name, nickname, class, appearance, gender, whatever. I'll probably be starting... next Monday? And do a weekly or biweekly update schedule. Maybe one general "progress of the war" or "be a hero!" video and one video on a more specific topic.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Mass Effect - Looking Back

Today is N7 day, November 7th. Admittedly Bioware came up with it, but why not, I'll take it. It gives me an excuse to write about Mass Effect, which I'm always, always ready to do.

It being N7 day, today is a day to appreciate the series and what it did well, the memories it gave us. So let's talk about that instead of the negatives (like we don't do enough of that in my LP... more on that later).

Mass Effect 1

Mass Effect 1 was released, as an Xbox 360 exclusive on Nov 20. 2007, almost 5 years ago. It was developed by Bioware, then mostly known for Baldur's Gate and Knights of the Old Republic, and Mass Effect was the first game they'd made in an original setting, although both of those significantly developed their settings, especially KotOR, which brought a whole new time period to the KotOR universe. I got the original Mass Effect, for PC... I think it was the fall of 2009. I was hooked.

They got so much right. The shooting mechanics were clunky, the pacing was occasionally a little odd, it definitely had the formulaic plot structure Bioware is famous for, but it nailed the setting and the characters. It brought us Commander Shepard, Garrus, Wrex, Tali, Liara, Joker, Saren, still some of my favorite characters in gaming. It brought us the Asari, the Turians, the Salarians, the Krogan, the Quarians, and more, a stable of sci-fi races that was new, diverse, and distinctive. It brought us the Genophage, the Rachni, and the Geth, introducing morally gray conflicts that shaped the entire universe and gave you a chance to affect those conflicts.

Mass Effect 1 still has some of the most iconic moments in the series. Remember Eden Prime, where we first saw Sovereign and began to learn the of threat of the Reapers. Remember the Citadel, where we got our first good look at the culture of the universe and became a Spectre. Remember becoming commander of the Normandy, and giving a speech to the crew that gave you one of the first big opportunities to establish your Shepard's character. Remember Noveria, and discovering the Rachni Queen. Remember Feros and the insidious influence of the Thorian. Remember Virmire, confronting Wrex, the "Hold the Line" speech and meeting Sovereign. Remember Ilos, and Vigil explaining the last effort of the Protheans, flinging a warning to the future. Remember the ending, remember convincing Saren that his was not the way, remember the Normandy leading the charge and defeating Sovereign for good.

Mass Effect 2The hype for Mass Effect 2 was intense. EA had acquired Bioware and with it the series, and ME2 was being promoted as a true blockbuster (despite the January 26 release). It looked like it was going to be great.

And it was, in a lot of ways. The shooting itself was a lot tighter, although the customization RPG aspects suffered. The base mechanics, at least in my opinion, were a lot more enjoyable.

Mass Effect 2 introduced many, many new characters, just as iconic as those from the original games. This is the game that brought us Mordin Solus, Thane Krios, Legion, Grunt, Samara, Miranda. ME2 had a huge emphasis on these characters, with every single squad member (of which there were about a dozen) getting one full mission devoted to them, apart from the recruitment missions for all but Miranda and Jacob, and these missions were easily the best part of the game. This is the game where we killed a Thresher Maw on foot, where we stopped an Ardat-Yakshi from terrorizing Omega, where we helped Mordin stop terrible experiments on the Krogan, where we saved Miranda's sister from her controlling father, where we saved Tali from accusations of unleashing the Geth on the Flotilla, and the game where we flew, and survived, the suicide mission.

Mass Effect 2 was definitely an improvement from Mass Effect 1 in a lot of ways. Conversations were more fluid and integrated into the plot, instead of the ME1 style where typically you got your quests and then you went and did them. It was much more cinematic, with some really great scenes. It had a ton of terrific character development for its huge stable of characters. It further developed the setting, letting us see the impact of the Genophage on Tuchanka, the plight of the Quarians on the Migrant Fleet, and the height of Asari culture on Illium. The suicide mission was an interesting experiment in gameplay mechanics, fusing character input and a cinematic experience in a way that hadn't really been seen before.

Mass Effect 3

Again, Mass Effect 3 was hyped up for months before release. Fans of the series, like me, hoped that it would combine the plot and customization of Mass Effect 1 with the shooting and cinematic experience of ME2, while keeping up the tradition of setting and characters the previous games had established.

Again, in a lot of ways it worked. There's been a lot of negative discussion of ME3, even without the controversy of the ending, but ME3 did succeed in fusing the first two fairly well. It further developed the skill systems and gave much more variety to the  enemies and weapons, making the combat much, much deeper than in ME2. It had a resurgent focus on the plot, with every main mission directly related to the main objective, unlike Mass Effect 2.

War was upon the galaxy, and no punches would be pulled. Right from the very beginning, Shepard tumbled from catastrophe to catastrophe, trying to find some way to save Earth and defeat the Reapers. We went from Palaven, seeing the discipline and heroism of the desperate Turians trying to save their homeworld, to Tuchanka, where we finally resolved the longstanding issue of the genophage, to Rannoch, where the Geth and the Quarians were engaged in their final battle, to Earth, where the Reapers are defeated and Shepard wins. (mostly)

Mass Effect as a series was a grand experiment, Bioware trying to make a series in a completely new world with a grand epic story that the player had unparalleled influence on. Sometimes they stumbled, sometimes they fell backwards, but overall I think they succeeded.

So next time you're discussing the ending, or Cerberus, or nitpicking at some small aspect, or whatever, take a step back, just for a moment, and remember the memories and experiences that the series has given us over the past 5 years. I certainly have, and I thank Bioware for giving me one of my favorite series ever, despite the mistakes I made and the potential for so much more that was squandered.

Happy N7 Day. Maybe next year seeing the bright side will be a little easier.

P.S. Oh, btw, I'm planning on starting my ME2 LP up again next week. It's published now so I have to do it. Someone remind me this weekend that I need to do that. Also if you'd like being a guest commentator for a week or two, and I know you, feel free to volunteer on twitter or in the comments.