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.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

2012 in Review - the Games

So I played a lot of games this year, a lot more than I ever have. Let's see how this list goes.. probably more on the good list than the bad. Obviously, this will be a very subjective list and you won't agree with everything.

Let's start off with the bad, shall we? In no particular order:

The Bad:

Diablo III

I've played Diablo II, but that was recently and I just borrowed it to play through it. I certainly don't have the memories of LAN parties lasting for an entire weekend and just playing through the entire campaign a few times with a few friends. For me, a game like this turns into a very solo experience. I just explore, mess around some, make sure to fill the ENTIRE map, and kill some dudes. It's just not the kind of multiplayer I enjoy.

I could do that with Diablo III. I DID do that with Diablo III. I even enjoyed doing that with Diablo III (By the way, Tyrael is awesome) Then I finished, started up nightmare, and played it for a few days. About half way through, I stopped. I didn't even stop because it was a bad game. I stopped because it wasn't for me. Clickfests and looting being the entire point of the game just doesn't work for me, at least not with this kind of combat. (I enjoyed Borderlands 1 well enough even solo. Of course I got that for like $20 will all the DLC, not for full price at launch)

Guild Wars 2 

This one I should have seen coming. I DID see this one coming. Guild Wars 2, before launch, was being touted as a 'completely different experience' from the WoW model, a 'WoW killer' as it were. Oh look 'skill' based combat! Auto-scaling areas and enemies! Area quests! Dynamic events! Isn't this so awesome and DIFFERENT!

Spoiler: It's not. It's the same thing except with a undeniably shallower combat and progression system than WoW, terrible crafting balance, a tendency to make you want to do EVERYTHING and thus almost inevitably underlevel you. (In a game where scaling YOU down to the enemies was a selling point!) The only motivation seemed to be 'Isn't this fun and cool and DIFFERENT?!?'

Maybe someday someone will make an MMORPG that actually IS different. I'm still looking.


Now, don't get me wrong, I appreciate Dishonored for what it is - a fully realized new IP in a very creative world with some interesting mechanics, but I'm the victim of my OWN hype here. I've been saying 'this game looks awesome' for over a year, when what I really meant 'hey this game is like those games you guys all say you like so you'll probably like this!'.

They did, I didn't. My playstyle isn't conducive to this type of game, I guess. I took the boring, simple, but guaranteed to be always useful powers and used one of the least interesting and unique strategies in the game for the ENTIRE GAME (sneaking and backstabbing, btw). I couldn't bring myself to play with the other mechanics because I didn't think they'd be more effective. Blink is cool, if a little overpowered, and there's a lot of neat ideas. But for whatever reason I didn't have all that much fun (the story and characters weren't the best either). There were some cool moments, but overall a disappointment for me personally. I'll probably enjoy it a lot more the second time around.

Assassin's Creed 3 

AC3 disappointed me because it had the potential to finally get out from the shadow of the Ezio trilogy and really be the BEST game in the series, and it dropped the ball. It's just so fundamentally broken in the way it uses its mechanics it's almost a tragedy.

Sure, it had the most interesting moral themes and characters of the entire series, but when the game itself is so broken when previous games have been so much better? I had higher hopes for this game. 

 The Good:

Mass Effect 3

I won't say much about ME3, that's beating a dead horse that was resurrected and then fell down Mount Everest. Twice. I'll just say that everything but the ending was about what I expected and even hoped for, and I refuse to let the admittedly TERRIBLE ending tarnish my view of what is STILL probably my favorite series of games ever.

 The Old Republic

"But Aldowyn, you spent two paragraphs slamming GW2 for not being different!" No. Well, yes. Kind of. I slammed GW2 for being different just for the sake of being different. TOR, on the other hand, knows what it wants to do differently and does it rather well. If you like Bioware's style of writing and storytelling, and the WoW model isn't an instant turn-off for you, TOR may be the game for you.
 I do really enjoy the class storylines, the voice acting, and how every quest has context that games like WoW really doesn't. It even has area quests somewhat similar to some of GW2's area quests, just always available as long as the mobs are there. I admit it has downsides to GW2's approach, but the base game is better for me and less reliant on gimmickry.


If you start off with an Arthur C. Clarke quote, I'm PROBABLY going to like you. Now, others have discussed the downsides of XCOM: Enemy Unknown's tactical turn-based system before, and it was sufficient for me, but that's not what I want to talk about. What I really liked about it was how it manages to naturally and intuitively fit a cohesive narrative into a tactical game that's meant to be repeated. These soldiers' lives are in your hands, and they will fight for you as heroes and, sometimes, those that can't quite cut it.

Firaxis, which if you don't know is also the developer behind the Civilization series seems to be good at this. They make these sprawling tactical systems and manage to put enough personality behind it that it doesn't feel bland and boring. This is no exception. 

The Walking Dead


This one blindsided me. I'd heard of it, and certainly the television show, but until Shamus and Co. decided they were going to cover it on Spoiler Warning (Shamus' blog should be on the sidebar somewhere if you don't follow him already), I hadn't really looked. I'm glad I did.

TWD has some of the most fully realized characters I've ever seen. The writing and voice work are both quite great (try closing your eyes and just listening...), and this is a game that's not afraid to use its mechanics to make you feel TERRIBLE. The narrative and the choices have been discussed a lot, so I'd like to bring something else up.

Quick time events. They're the primary mode of combat in this game, and this is how you do them right. Simple mouse clicks for hitting stuff, Q and E or sometimes space for struggles, and it's almost always predictable, which is the main reason QTEs genuinely suck. Very few of them are actually HARD, but you know that if you mess up you might get your brains eaten - and sometimes that makes you mess up.

Far Cry 3

Those of you that follow me on twitter may know that I am pretty much obsessed with this game right now. It's one of the most fun games I've ever played. It knows what it wants to do and delivers on it nearly flawlessly. The themes and narrative are interesting, but I haven't entirely figured them out yet, and that's a bigger discussion than I want to have here. (Not to mention I already had the first part of it in my "Welcome to the Jungle" post back in December.)

So.. yeah. Lots of cool games, lots of disappointments. I didn't play anything that was just fundamentally terrible, luckily, but there were some that were about what I was expecting, some better, some worse. Hopefully I've learned a bit more about what games I personally like, enough to ... not get every single one of my big disappointments at launch. (The only other games I got at full price were ME3, which was always going to happen, and XCOM)

Next week I'll discuss some of the constant themes in the industry from 2012 and what I expect to happen in 2013. See you then! (Who knows, I might write something before then. I should tell you guys WHY AC3 sucks instead of just 'man this was awful' all the time)

P.S. If there's something you think I'd have mentioned that I haven't, I probably didn't play it. Notably Spec Ops: The Line, Borderlands 2, and maybe Max Payne 3. FTL isn't on here because meh I don't like talking about indie games as much, sorry :P

Thursday, January 3, 2013

This is the big one

Those of you that are new here, welcome. This post is perhaps more for you than it is for my long-time followers, although I certainly hope they appreciate it too.

So, those of you that HAVE followed me for a while know that I've experimented a LOT with finding my 'niche' in internet video game criticism. I've dabbled in videos, I've dabbled in the blog here, but I've never found something that really grabbed a hold of me or even viewers/readers. I've always thought that there was something, somewhere that I could add to the discussion - I mean, the plan is to become a game designer. If I can't say something new, then is that the right plan? It certainly FEELS like it is, so SOME niche almost has to exist if I'm right.

I think this is it. This is my big plan, more fundamentally original and thus likely to succeed than any other - if I can get it off the ground. The idea is a video series not unlike Extra Credits, which is the show that really inspired me to believe that becoming a designer was really something that I could actually DO. Making games is one of those things that sounds like a fever dream, but Dan and James, and of course Allison and LeeLee (you guys are all awesome, by the way) made it seem possible. So thanks to them for that.

Back on topic. Connections and networking are one of the most important aspects in any industry, especially creative ones, and this is the lightning-in-a-bottle method of doing that ahead of time. (And I think I have it in the bottle. The problem is trying to figure out how to USE it) The only reason I'm pitching this as a video series instead of a blog post is an inherently selfish one - if you consider getting more people to watch it 'selfish'. Branding, recognition, and loyalty are all fundamentally easier for video content than text content, because humans are visual creatures. It also helps that videos do MORE than just text - they convey things through images, and words in both visual and audio form. It's a long established fact that more senses = more learning. The presence of Youtube is not a coincidence either, but I will also make transcripts available for those of you that don't like videos for whatever reason. No reason not to since it's going to be scripted anyway, and I will fight to make that happen as well as I can - even if it's just putting it in the description or if worst comes to worst putting subtitles/captions on the videos or putting it all on the screen at the end. (Like I said, last ditch scenario. I don't foresee that happening. Those last few miss the point of reading instead of watching, really :/)

The idea for the show itself is like Extra Credits in the way that many if not all of the episodes will be based on topics more fundamental than gameplay footage can accurately convey, and thus requires art of some form or another to be shown through video. (Yet another way of forming a brand. Look at Extra Credits! Or Zero Punctuation, or any number of animated videos...) That's a problem, and not the only one, but I need to finish explaining.

The TOPIC is game design. A lot of videos, including, yes, Extra Credits, often discuss game design, but it's usually either in context to a related issue, or for a specific game. (There ARE exceptions, some of which I can think of off the top of my head. They tend to be the most interesting for me. Again, not a coincidence) MY show would be JUST about game design. That's my niche. Quite a few people have already expressed interest, moreso than for any of my previous videos, series, or even individual posts. It's one of the reasons I'm so convinced this could be my big shot.

I'm going to give you an example so you know just what I'm talking about. The pilot episode, if I can make it, has to do with conflict, and how it's ESSENTIAL to designing a game. Every mechanic in a game has something to do with how the player overcomes obstacles. It's as fundamental a concept to games as conflict is in books. SOMETHING has to drive the player's play just as much as conflict drives a narrative, and it's an analogous situation. There's more to it, or there would be once I started fully writing the episode, but that's the main concept.

So that's the idea. But, as is inevitable with such an ambitious project, there are some problems. The first is the art. It HAS to be art, because it can't (or rather, I would vastly prefer) a video format, and showing gameplay A: Doesn't have enough branding (I MIGHT use clips, but probably not), and B: just doesn't work as well to explain the kind of fundamental concepts I plan on discussing. I can't draw, and I am not willing to risk this idea floundering because I'm fumbling around with new software I have no idea how to use, so getting an artist would probably be optimal. I DO have another possibility, but unless it works out I don't want to discuss it, because it drags someone else into the discussion without their permission.

The second is publicity. Finding a new show is HARD, and I want to make it as easy as possible to find my show. I have a possible idea here, and it's a fever dream, but again... it feels like it might happen. That idea is to join a major gaming network on Youtube. I won't tell you which, even though you might actually guess. I know it's extremely unlikely for an unproven youtuber to do that, but I may have a way around it and I HOPE my intensity and belief in this idea will help a lot.

I'm actively working on both these issues, and I'm hoping if this post gets spread around enough you guys can help me figure it out. I need help, and what better way to start a fanbase than to get people involved in creating the show? That's a large part of why Kickstarter and other crowdfunding (I won't forget rockethub!) works the way it does.

In any case, thanks for reading, new or old. I think I may be on to something, and I need your help to make it happen. Give me feedback, ideas, suggestions. Spread the word. Any content created for consumers is impossible without them - and the series itself is for you, not me. The experience and notoriety is just a bonus - I guess you could say the good thing for a wrong reason is still a good thing, right? I'll keep you posted, and I'll see you next time.


So, I've decided I'm going to make a pitch video ASAP, but I still want to get this right. There's a few avenues I can explore, including some that I can't until I go back to uni in a week or so. I MAY have found my solution for the art issue, which is the more immediate one - I need the pitch VIDEO and maybe even the pilot to make my official pitch to the network I mentioned. I'm going to spend the next week I have off trying random things and seeing how they work. One option is GIMP (freeware photoshop/paint) and Windows Movie Maker (or, better, some professional application like Vegas Pro), another is Flash, again if I shell out the money. (well, there's a trial for Vegas Pro and Flash that I can use for now) That's what I can mess with right now, and what I'll be spending the next few days doing. (Although I need a break, I've been running pretty much nonstop since I posted this originally) As always, I'll keep you posted.