Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Article: The Gamer's Paradox: The Journey and the Destination

I just realized something interesting about how I've grown as a game player:

When I was young, and I played Super Mario Bros., I would use warp pipes to get to world eight as fast as possible so I could try to beat the game.  When I player Super Mario Bros. today, I go through every level without warping.

Still play it.  Still awesome.
When you're young, it's all about beating the game.  You want to make it to the end, to beat the final boss, and to watch the end credits.

Similarly, I would cheat my way through games.  I would turn invulnerability and no clipping on in DOOM just to beat it quickly.  I bought MYST and a strategy guide to go with it.  And when I discovered you can 'beat' MYST in five minutes, I would play it just to do so.

What is the point of doing that?  All I did was rob myself of the joy of actually playing a game.

These days, I don't cheat, and I don't care about beating the game.  I care about the moment to moment experience, and I care about enjoying what I am currently doing.  I'm not looking forward to the end of the game; in fact, if the game is great, I dread the end.  I don't want to finish the game; I want it to continue indefinitely.

Now I find I prefer games like MMOs with ever-expanding content so I never run out of stuff to do.  If there is a level cap, I get my character to one level before the cap, then start a new character and repeat until the level cap is raised.

When I think of sports, and of how so many of the players just want to win, I wonder what joy they get out of the game in the first place.  When I play a one-on-one basketball game, my aim is not to win, but to enjoy myself.  And win or lose, I've accomplished my goal.

At least that's what I tell myself when I lose.
It strikes me as particularly interesting how I've played board games with others before, and they don't start to enjoy the game until they've won once.

When I read a book, my favorite ending is the non-ending:  a cliffhanger the prevents a resolution, so I am hungry for a sequel.  I don't want any kind of media to end; book, movie, song, or game.  As long as it's good, why would I want an experience to end?

When it comes to a non-interactive piece of media like a book or movie, that works; but when it comes to games, it's actually a paradox, because the point of a game is to win, meaning to end the game having completed the goal.  The purpose of a game requires it to finish.

(Pardon me while I discuss stuffy academic nonsense for a minute...)

Games have classically required four components: interactivity, rules, goals, and end states.  These are all fairly self-explanatory, and you would be hard-pressed to think of a sport, card game, or board game that does not have all four of these components.

But in recent times, the two components that have become questionable are goals and end states.  Typically, if there is no goal or end state, you're just playing with a toy, not a game.  So by this qualification, Sim City is not a game.  There is no designer-defined goal, only what the player decides themselves, and you cannot win or lose.  The game continues indefinitely, so there is no end state.

A monster destroying your entire city just means you get to do it all again.
But Rollercoaster Tycoon is a game, because any given level has a goal: have x people in your park, make y money, etc.  The end state is that you've unlocked every level and successfully completed every level's goal.

Yet both Sim City and Rollercoaster Tycoon are Management Simulations, and their gameplay is quite similar (Rollercoaster Tycoon is derivative of Sim City at that).

Hardly anyone but stuffy academics would argue that Sim City is not a game, however.  Similarly, MMOs with infinite (ever-expanding) content wouldn't qualify under this definition.

(So I shall end this stuffy academic talk here.)

Now, growing up, I didn't care much for Sim City; the idea of playing mayor didn't interest me.  But I played Rollercoaster Tycoon relentlessly.  Did it appeal because it had an amusement park theme?  Certainly that was the initial lure, but I mostly played the game because I wanted to beat each level and unlock the next one.

Despite playing it often, I can't say I had too much fun once the novelty wore off after about four levels.  So Rollercoaster Tycoon was only addictive because of its goal and reward system, and without it I would get bored with it as quickly as I tired of Sim City.

I've railed endlessly about how a great game doesn't need to be addicting for players to be engaged with it for a long time; indeed, I think all that is necessary to keep a player coming back for more (beyond making enjoyable gameplay in the first place, which is nothing to sneeze at) is to throw out the old definition of a game and remove the end state.

Or, at least, separate the goal from the end state.

(Back to the stuffy academics...)

The goal of the game is it's objective, and it's end state is when the game ends (did I need to explain that?), and these two usually occur at the same time.  Often, the goal of a game is to have a certain condition in effect when the end state occurs.  Take football, soccer, hockey, basketball: in every one of these sports, the end state is that a time limit is reached, and the goal is to have more points than your opponent when the timer runs out.

Now, in that example, there is a win state and a loss state; one team achieves the win state, the other team achieves (for lack of a better word) the loss state.

And sometimes, everybody loses.
In a game like Tetris, there is no win state, only a loss state.  The game (theoretically) continues forever unless you lose.  The goal is to have as many points as possible when you lose.  You cannot win at Tetris, you can only lose and brag about how much you scored before losing.

Similarly, a tabletop game like D&D has no win state; if your party does not die, you can adventure forever.  There are always more adventures to go on, and the DM can always make up something new.

In MMOs, there is often no lose state, either.  If you die, you pop back up like nothing happened, or at worst are punished, but you do not have to roll up a new character to continue.  These kinds of games simply never end (sometimes there is "endgame content" but this is a misnomer unless you are prevented from continuing without starting a new game/character).

(Ok, we're out of the academic discussion at last.)

We have a paradox in games because of the conflict between its definition and what it's trying to become:  the point of a game is to achieve the goal, and in doing so end the game, but a great piece of entertainment (or art) is about the experience in the moment, not getting it over with.

Books, movies, music, and other art do not have goals, except to entertain the audience or bestow a message.  The longer the piece lasts, the more entertainment value is achieved, or the more the message can be driven home.

So I watch really looooooooong movies.
If we want to turn games into an art form on par with those other forms, perhaps we should rethink what it means to be a game.  If we stop thinking of games as needing to end, needing to be beaten, we can finally make games about the journey, not the destination.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Article: Three Types of Protagonists

Most storytelling media, like movies, books, and the like, have a protagonist that is apart from the consumer; the protagonist has their own personality, acts according to his or her own will, and the consumer is just along for the ride.

But when games came along, suddenly the player was controlling the protagonist, reaching a new level of connection between the player and protagonist.

But with this, players were no longer just along for the ride, instead acting on the protagonist's behalf.  Players then wanted to insert themselves into the game, rather than just take over the body of another character.

So as the medium grew, a new form of protagonist was created: the Blank Slate.

The Blank Slate is a type of protagonist that can only really exist in games (or, in rare cases, books told in second person, which is usually the domain of choose-your-own-adventure books, which are games in themselves).

Basically, the Blank Slate is a silent, usually faceless, often nameless character that the player can project themselves onto.  First person shooters do this often, with the Doomguy and Gordon Freeman being prominent examples.  In genres where getting lost in the world and setting takes priority over the character, the Blank Slate will be used as well, such as in MYST.

One problem that arises from the Blank Slate is that there is quite often less interaction with the story, making the player less of a protagonist and more of a side character, observer, or sometime-agent.

Thus began the debate about which is the better experience: the Traditional Protagonist or the Blank Slate.  Some argued that immersion is best when given a Blank Slate so the player can slide into the role more easily; others say the most engaging stories come from a Traditional Protagonist.

This all comes down to personal preference, and each person comes to the conclusion based on what they like best: the feeling of truly being the protagonist, or having a more emotionally engaging story.

Now, we've been given a third option, which is most often found in MMOs, but has been known to exist in single-player games before them: the Customizable Protagonist.

This gives the best of both worlds, where the protagonist is visible on screen and displays a distinct personality, based on looks at least (although sometimes stance and voice are also options), but simultaneously acts as a Blank Slate for a player to slide into the role, without being quite so blank.

Growing up, whenever I played a game that allowed character customization--even when it wasn't necessary--I would immediately create my own character.  The Tony Hawk games, wrestling games, even Twisted Metal 4 (as bad as that was).

Usually my character would be modeled as closely after me as possible, and when not, I would create a character that I could get behind.  This kind of customization allowed me to roleplay much more easily than with Traditional Protagonists, which were the staple of the RPG--a genre defined in its name by the necessity to take a role.

However, a Customizable Protagonist still doesn't quite reach the emotional level of traditional storytelling as the Traditional Protagonist, simply because, despite the visual, they are still too Blank Slatey, so many single-player games don't offer much, if anything, in the way of customization.

To combat this, morality systems are in vogue, trying to give the player choices that allow them to roleplay their character better while delivering the biggest emotional punch.  This gives a new form of character customization, bringing a layer of personality to what was once purely visual.

Of course, morality systems are quite rudimentary and usually binary, so they don't provide the depth of physical customization yet.  Hopefully such systems will be revamped and upgraded to be on par with physical customization soon enough, because right now the morality systems we have are more a detriment to customization than a boon.

The Customizable Protagonist approach also carries the same marketing problem with the Blank Slate, because the developer loses a potential mascot or a recognizable face, forcing the mainstays to be the villains or NPCs.

The Customizable Protagonist doesn't just keep the problems from the Blank Slate, but has its own problems as well.

Mandatory character customization, for instance, is a turn-off for some players who would rather get in the game immediately.  I often find that, despite the desire to be able to control every facet of my character's body (how high up does the nose need to be, how wide, how long?), it also becomes a burden creating a character of that complexity for every MMO I get into.

A randomization button is a good first step, but it's not quite enough.  For MMOs where customization is necessary to prevent cloning, this is all that can be done at the moment.

But for games where customization does not need to be mandatory (such as... just about everything else), giving the option, while also having default characters allows players to choose what is best for them.  For instance, the previously mentioned Tony Hawk games, wrestling games, and Twisted Metal 4 allowed the player to pick from at least a dozen premade characters, but also gave the option for the player to make their own customized character.

While this helps solve some of its own problems, the problems that plague the Blank Slate still require fixing.

One option is to allow physical customization, but the protagonist still has a distinct personality.  Dragon Nest's characters, for instance, while being physically customizable, have a charming, sarcastic sense of humor.

This fixes the Blank Slate problem, but brings the Traditional Protagonist problem right back up:  it works if the player likes the given personality, but prevents the player from slipping into the role if they don't like it.

All three forms of protagonist are still used in videogames, and each achieves a different effect, trying to capitalize on the strengths while minimizing the weakness of the form.

But ultimately, as videogames increase in prominence as a storytelling form, the style of protagonist may become a bigger choice for a player's decision to purchase the game than it currently is.

Or perhaps the difference between the styles will be as irrelevant or as subconsciously preferential as the difference between a first- and third-person narrator in a book.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Glitchers (Sample)

The hike took no more than a couple of hours, but Tad was happy it was almost over.

He first noticed the small wooden sign as they neared the top of the hillock.  Clean but ungraceful white paint read:

Oremen's Hamlet
Population:  16
Traders Welcome

Beyond it, a few roofs grew over the horizon, until at last the whole settlement was visible.  A large mineshaft dropped into the center of the knoll, making it appear as a grassy volcano.

There were five shacks and a barn surrounding the mine, and little else of interest.  A couple of trees, a couple of sheep, a couple of cows.  A fire pit with an old spit was set apart from the buildings, balanced on rock jutting from the hillside.

Beyond the animals, there was no life.  The people were all indoors or in the mine.  Tinking and clinking echoed up through the hole, fading to nothing beyond a few yards.

"Is it in the mine?" Tad asked; a boy in transition to manhood, yet still with a wide-eyed, innocent face.

"Nothing so romantic as that," his teacher replied.  The old man uncapped his canteen and took a swig.  He was fighting some sickness that had not yet been diagnosed, but it made him sore and thirsty just to walk.  The midnight blue robe of his order felt a hundred times its weight on his body.

Tad's teacher led him through the hamlet toward the barn.  "In there," he said, pointing with his eyes.

Tad leaned over the mine as they edged past.  Light drifted down the gray stone hole in the earth.  Tad couldn't get a proper angle to see the bottom, and he wondered how far the picking noises traveled to reach him.

The teacher stopped at the antique shack next to the barn.  He warned the boy: "Only speak when spoken to, and say no more than your name and vocation."

Tad nodded, and his teacher knocked.  Shifting noises inside, and then the door opened roughly.

A middle-aged woman glanced at the old man and gasped, half fearful surprise, half pleasant surprise.

"I'm sorry, I wasn't told you'd be coming," the woman said.

"This is a little impromptu," Tad's teacher apologized.  "I thought it would be a good idea if the boy... my boy, Tad, here, got to see."

"Is he your apprentice?"

"If you like.  As close as comes to it in our profession."

The woman's shoulders dropped a little, which Tad thought was disappointment.  But she said "I'm glad you came anyway.  I'm glad someone pays attention to us.  Come."

The woman, haggard and unkempt, took man and boy with each hand and marched the ten paces to the barn, as if habit.  She pushed open the sliding door, and revealed a nearly empty cavern of decaying hay and wood.

In one corner, a boy sat on a stool, facing away from them.  He wore the simple leather and cotton of a peasant, and appeared to be not much younger than Tad himself.  He had a strange movement to him:  he turned his head toward them, then suddenly snapped back, and repeated the motion over and over.  The snap was not as if he moved his head back, but as if his head simply disappeared from one position and reappeared in the other instantly.  His hands grasped at air, squeezing nothing.  His voice was a constant stream of an unfinished sentence, timed with his movements: "I wantI wantI wantI wantI want..."

Tad's eyebrows went up in shock.  He was looking at a glitch--but it was more than a glitch; it was a boy who was glitched.  A human being.  A kid younger than he was.

The old man came close to the farm boy and looked at his face.  Tad came along behind, almost hiding behind his master.

"Please, explain how this happened," Tad's master said.  "For my boy."

The woman stifled a sob, as though the incident just happened, still too raw to speak of.  "He was milking a cow," she said; "I was sweeping the floor.  We were talking.  I wasn't paying attention to him, but... I think the cow just decided to walk away from him as he milked her.  Then he got stuck like that, right in the middle of speaking, turning to... to look at me."

Tad put his hand out, and his teacher quickly slapped it away.  "Don't touch him," he warned harshly, "you don't know what that can do.  To him or to you."

"We don't touch him," the woman said, as if the old man had spoken to her, "me and his father, we don't.  I haven't... I haven't touched him since...since it happened."

"And how long has he been like this?"

The woman looked away.  "Six years," she said.

The teacher put a hand on Tad's shoulder, and spoke softly, so the woman wouldn't hear:  "In six years, this boy has been stuck like this.  He does not age, he does not sleep, he does not change.  He should be older than you, Tad.  His name is Colm.  He once took care of the cows and the sheep to make milk and wool for the farmers.  Now the animals are too scared of him to even enter the barn.  Someday this structure will collapse, and he will go on with that unfinished sentence.  This is why you joined our order, Tad.  Someday, if your prayers are heard, this boy can be fixed.  Someday he can live again."

Tad sniffled, keeping back a tear.  This boy had a name.  He had--has--parents.  He had a job, did something of value, helped take care of his community.  And one day his life changed forever, for reasons unknown, if any reasons existed at all for such a fate.

"I suppose if you knew anything, you would tell me," the woman said.

"Yes, I would," the old man said.  "Our prayers are unanswered."

"Ours, too."

"We must go now," the teacher said, and they did.  Tad, his teacher, and Colm's mother left the barn, and Colm's mother shut the barn door, but even so, Tad could still faintly hear the boy, repeating forever: "I wantI wantI wantI wantI wantI want..."


The final moment in the above passage has been in my head for quite some time.

I've been working on a new fiction project for a while now, coming up with characters and such, and this is kind of a demo or proof of concept or taste of what I'm going for.

The basic gist is that it takes place in a world of a videogame, which is rife with glitches.  The main characters (who call themselves The Glitchers) are adventurers out to find, note, study, and ultimately fix glitches found in their world.

I won't get into much more detail than that, because everything else is subject to change.

What I have now is a few notes and a few sample scenes like the one above, which I've written to get in the groove of writing, to get in the heads of characters, and to try to solidify the world.  Hopefully posting this will get me in gear to start writing the real thing.

Read on...

Friday, January 20, 2012

3rd Time's a Charm: DC Universe Online

Even after giving my first impressions of DC Universe Online, I continue to play it, indicating that it's either addicting or good.  I think it's both.

When I finished my previous review, I said it had potential.

Now, I'm no longer on the fence, and I think it's lived up to that potential.  It just took a long time to get there.

Since my last review was mostly a player's initial reactions, I'd like to take another stab at the game, this time with a designer's scalpel.

The Great

Basic Combat is very, very well done.  They took the fluid controls of a console (considering this is also a PS3 title, it makes sense) and adapted it to the uber-restricting keyboard-and-mouse.  Well, the mouse.

Given that a mouse has at least two buttons, both were used, and both do different things when tapped or held, effectively giving the mouse four buttons, which opens the door to controller-style combos.  These combos get unlocked as you level up, and you usually have options to pick from.

After testing out a few of the combat styles, I found one that suited me.  This does not limit me to the one style, however; after reaching a certain level, the other styles become unlocked, and I can freely switch between weapons of various categories, as long as I have used a skill point to purchase the combat set.

There seem to be fewer kinds of superpower sets, but there is enough variety in them that I found two sets that I enjoyed.  Your choice of superpowers determines your general role (a class in other RPGs), such as tank or healer.

No matter what role you choose, goofy costumes are mandatory.
Superpowers similarly unlock as you level up, also allowing you to customize which powers you use, as well as subdividing them into two more categories, effectively doubling the number of superpowers you have to work with.  So despite having fewer top-level categories of superpowers as combat skills, they come out to about the same.

Mission designs are excellent; they don't feel repetitive in the least, and they go far, far beyond fetch quests and extermination.  The missions are one of the strongest points of the game.

Combine the mission ingenuity with the delightful combat, and you've got a formula that every other MMORPG should be mercilessly trying to copy.

Customization is great, keeping an asterisk for the fact that it's a superhero palette.  However, with enough creativity, a player can make a lot more than it appears at first glance (and with what I see in game, players aren't taking advantage of the variety there really is).

The Meh

While the following aspects aren't terrible, they could be improved, and quite easily.

For instance: maybe it's just my keyboard, but whenever I intend to press shift, I accidentally press Ctrl.  Ctrl serves to collect floating icons such as money and xp, while Shift is used to break out of effects such as stun.

In combat, breaking out of effects is a far more important thing to do, and pressing the wrong button once or twice before finding the right one can turn into a lot of extra damage.

Swapping the buttons or offering another option to break out of effects, such as Q, would easily fix this problem.  That, or I suppose I should get a new keyboard.

The other Meh problem is that, to swap from Gotham to Metropolis, you have to run through the Watchtower (or whatever the villain equivalent is, I assume), which is a bit of a maze.  A quick flip would be much nicer.

I understand that you may have to be in a police station or nightclub to do it, but beyond that, it should not require spending ten extra minutes in the Watchtower to get there.

From the Watchtower, you can not only switch between Gotham and Metropolis, but also switch between any police station anywhere, which is very nice, because the walk from the main part of Metropolis to Little Bohemia is a doozy, especially since I have found the only enjoyable method of travel is Acrobatics.

However, having the option to be able to teleport between any police station from each police station, without having to jump to the Watchtower first, would be much more welcome option.

The Awful

The worst sin DC Universe Online commits is the double-crime of having to wait when you die, and then flee the scene.  One is bad enough, but two makes me think the Joker designed this.

You always have to wait, but I've discovered fleeing doesn't always happen--exactly once I have been presented with a second option to get up where I stand, but I have no idea what triggered it.

Making the option always available is the easiest fix in the world, since the programming is already in place to have it; just take out the if statement and you're golden.

There are times when you may want to flee, such as to repair your stuff before jumping back into battle (a common feature of MMORPGs which also should be completely reexamined), but to be forced to flee takes control out of the players hands.

As for waiting, I have no idea why this exists.  If I can't get up immediately, I should be given the option to send a strongly worded email to the designers while I wait.

The only other major problem with the game is that you're really led by the nose with the main mission line.

Now, every once in a while you can find a thug trying to break into a door, and you can beat him up, and this is completely unrelated to anything else happening in the game; you just stumbled upon a crime.

That is what more of the game should be about.  What I find is that I'm doing a lot of the missions simply because they're on my list to accomplish; and despite what I said earlier about how good the missions themselves are, the structure of acquiring the missions creates an addictive loop, and after a while I start to wonder when I'll finish them all so I can wander the city freely.

The addictive loop takes what is great and makes it a grind.  Every major MMORPG has this same problem, and it is a concept that I simply despise.  I would continue to play this game even if it weren't addictive because it's enjoyable to play, but the enjoyment disappears as the addiction takes over, and then I'm playing the game for the wrong reasons.

Really, a bit of mission restructuring would tremendously help; just make it so you have to go out and explore the city to find missions, rather than be handed missions in a police station.

So as long as you take a break from this game every mission or two, and don't let the addiction take over, it's a great game.  And don't die.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

1st (and 2nd) Impressions: DC Universe Online

I decided to give DC Universe Online two tries before writing a review, for two reasons: first, I really wanted to like this, to find an MMO that didn't make me grind my character, my gears, or my teeth in my sleep; and secondly, I am not the target audience.

This latter reason is the main one.  I am not a comic book fan, and especially not a superhero fan.  I always took a casual liking to Batman and X-Men growing up, but they weren't much more than exceptions.

My first take on DC Universe Online was as a cursory fan of MMOs and a non-fan of superheroes, and as such, it disappointed greatly.  This is because I have a conception of what a good superhero is, and this is not what a normal superhero fan conceives.  I think Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, and the Green Lantern are all goofy, and they are the stars of the intro cinematic.

But I tried to get into it; watching the opening was a treat, and I liked the art style, the attention to detail, the gritty realism of it (as far as superheroes can be realistic).  Then I learned this cutscene is a flash forward, and the world I will be inhabiting will not be what is shown.

This was the first disappointment, and you can't blame me for that; regardless of fandom, showing a flash forward with a completely different art style and tone is a particularly poor way to open a game.

The next disappointment came from my origin story.  Every player has the same story, whether you are a hero or villain:  Brainiac is coming to take over earth, and Lex Luthor has decided to give as many people (players) superpowers as possible.  He also requests the aid of superheroes, who are usually his enemy, like Superman.

Okay, there's two problems with that.

Firstly, why are the heroes and villains teaming up?  It seems as though that pretty much defeats the purpose of choosing between hero and villain to begin the game.  They're both trying to save Earth, so the villain is Brainiac.

Ok, so it worked well here.
The bigger problem, however, is that the player is forced to take superpowers because of the will of someone else.  This completely changes my motivations.  You cannot be an alien, like Superman; you can't be human and have an act of nature give you superpowers, like Spiderman, the Hulk or the X-Men (wrong universe, I know, sue me); and you can't choose to not have superpowers at all but just be handy with a utility belt, like Batman.  (You can use gadgets primarily, but you still have some superpowers, like superstrength and supermovement.)

Well, I had every intention of following in Batman's footsteps, becoming a hero with gadgets, but this completely changes who my character was going to be.  Heck, if I'm thrust into this conflict due to the will of someone else, I'm out for blood.  With such a storyline, in fact, I want to be of neither faction, but anarchy.

So I choose the villain option, since that's at least closer to anarchy than hero is; I pick the traits and abilities that sound good, and I try to design my character to look more like an average joe.

This is completely against what a superhero (or in this case, supervillain) is, of course.  I don't want to be caped, I don't want to wear spandex or tights or leather; I just want to look inconspicuous.  I chose to be an acrobat as a method of travel, rather than flying or super speed, because at least parkour is something a non-superhero can potentially do.

Then I notice that average joe customization options are quite lacking.  This makes sense, of course, considering this is a freakin' superhero game, and I'm the one who's got the problem so far, not the game.

But I think now is a good time to explain what I do like about superheroes, considering they aren't my thing in the least.

One of my favorite shows growing up was Lois & Clark, and I'm not a fan of Superman.  This is because the show was about Clark Kent and his relationships, not really about Superman fighting Lex Luthor (although he certainly showed up).

Of the recent X-Men movies, I like the first and third, and the second was boring.  This is the opposite of every other fan I've discussed this with.  I liked the first and third because they were origin stories, and they were about the characters; the second, I felt, was a bunch of action scenes cobbled together, and it got boring quickly.

Overall, the part of superhero stories that I like is the part where they have to keep in disguise, when they have to deal with their newfound powers, when they have to learn to blend in in a society where they're different.  The best two scenes in the X-Men movie are right at the beginning, when Rogue is kissing the guy and nearly kills him, and when Wolverine gets kicked out of the bar for exposing his claws.

So you can see where I'm coming from when I express my extreme disappointment in this game, right from the intro cutscene and the character creation, and we haven't even gotten into the game yet!

I had hoped for being able to create two sets of clothes--a crime-fighting set and a streetwalking set.  Unfortunately, the expectation is to create an elaborately, flamboyantly dressed cartoon.  Even the options for making someone like Westley or Zorro are abysmally small, which I would have accepted as meeting me halfway.

My kind of superhero.
Well, I tried my best to make my version of a superhero (jeans and a t-shirt), and got plopped into the tutorial level, where I'd been abducted by Brainiac.

There was no subtlety, no learning to deal with my powers in a home-life scenario; just bust out of a spaceship.  My disappointment grew.

But I went on, blasting through the tutorial, gaining a few ice powers, learning the combat system.

This is the first good thing about DC Universe Online.  The action is very well done, considering the frustrating, turn-based-with-an-action-disguise combat of other MMORPGs.  Attacks are pretty fluid, targeting is decent, special moves are ok.  It isn't the best I've played, but it did an admirable job considering the keyboard-and-mouse interface they had to work with.

Movement is another story.  You enter combat and movement modes, which I think is a rather silly idea.  In combat, your weapon is out (if you have one), and you move at a normal runner's pace.  In movement mode, you put your weapon away, take a different stance, and your chosen method of movement takes over, and you can move in ways you can't while in combat.

It would have been nice to be able to use your movement powers at all times, but I shouldn't be one to complain since I didn't want movement superpowers in the first place.  As a designer, however, I definitely think it was an odd choice; though I can see both the technical constraints and the need to force conflict, otherwise you could always fly away from a fight and be nicknamed Supercoward in the Watchtower cafeteria.

After the tutorial stage, I got to be placed in a Metropolis nightclub and learned the ropes from Lex Luthor (who I had chosen to be my mentor).

Once outside, the first thing I saw was a little racing flag, so I decided to see what that was about.  It was a test of my navigation skills as an acrobat.

I was supposed to run through rings.

Well, I completed the acrobat challenge and got a platinum rating on the first try.  I guess they expected their navigation system to be a tad more difficult than it was, which is the kind of overcompensation I can get behind.

I ran round punching people and completed a few missions, and eventually I got killed (or "knocked out", since I guess only Captain America can die).

And I had to wait to respawn.

What is this nonsense with MMOs forcing players to sit around twiddling their thumbs when they die?  You can read a book in the time it takes to respawn.  Is it to improve literacy?

And naturally, it shoves me back at the nightclub, miles from where I was.

This happens a few more times, before I decide to back out and make a new character so I don't break my monitor.

I contemplated quitting right here, but I decided to give it another shot, and this time ignore the disappointing origin story and just pretend it was the way I wanted it to be from the beginning.  I chose new powers, changed my movement to running to mix things up, became a hero, and restarted.

And got plopped into the exact same tutorial.

Even though I was the complete opposite to my previous character in every respect, I did the exact same thing.

I even reached a point in the tutorial where I had to use my movement to reach a high place, and with acrobatics it made sense because I could climb walls.  With flying, it would have made sense too.  But super speed?  Shouldn't super speed limit me to the ground?  I ran right up the wall with super speed, so it basically was no different than acrobatics, except made more annoying because I went so fast I had difficulty pinpointing places I needed to go.

After the tutorial, I wound up in some Gotham police station, and noticed the layout was identical to Lex Luthor's nightclub.

Okay, I know it's just a safehouse, and not a "real" level, but this is the third MMO I've played where they reused layouts and just retextured them (and I mean beyond the tutorial which is begrudgingly understandable).

This, under no circumstances, ever gives the impression of a new level.  Pay your designers to make a new layout rather than your artists to make new textures, and I would be much happier.  It's simply a better experience for the player.

So I walk outside the police station and there's that checkered flag again.  I decide to try out the race just because I'm having a more difficult time with the running movement style than the acrobatic style.

Because it's worth repeating.
As I'm running the course, I suddenly slow down for no immediately obvious reason, and I die.  It turns out this is because people are shooting me as I'm trying to complete the course.

Firstly, this is a test to get used to the movement, so there should be no bad guys.  Secondly, what ever happened to "faster than a speeding bullet"?

I have to wait ten seconds to respawn, so I just quit there.  I'm too frustrated with it, and tired, and beyond annoyed.

I briefly try Champions Online, another superhero MMO, as a comparison, but the character customization annoys me even more, the art style is worse, and the controls are awkward (this is a five second review of Champions Online, and I doubt I'll ever give it an hour of my time).

I go to bed.

The next morning I'm refreshed and decide to give DC Universe Online a second chance to woo me.  I know I'm not the target audience, so I decide to clear my head of my initial disappointment that it doesn't cater to my whims (really, what the hell did I expect?), and go back in with a fresh perspective.

Makes games better.
I delete my old characters and create a new one.  I'm back to acrobatics (easier than speed and by god I refuse to fly), and pick new powers again.  I create a character than is more conventionally superhero-looking (I refuse the spandex, but I'll be okay with a cape and a hood), and restart.

I chose mentalism powers this time, along with an axe as a weapon, and both are decent to work with.  I think the first two characters I created really had powers I simply didn't like playing with, and this time I struck a good combination.  The action and combat are even better than they were before.

I smashed the tutorial to pieces, and felt pretty good about myself.  Then I started with a few missions, and to my surprise the game played much better.  I haven't died yet with this character; I'm able to handle many more enemies at once than previously (like, I don't know, a superhero or something), and my abilities are much more fun to use.

I think that, as long as you don't "get knocked out" and go on a killing spree while you're waiting to respawn, DC Universe Online is actually pretty decent.

This coming from a guy who just spent three quarters of the review complaining about it.

Okay, maybe this is me after all.
But it's true; while it's not the best MMORPG in the world, it does have quite a few things going for it.  The key (for me anyway) is to eliminate all expectations about what it should be.  Even if you like superhero comics, the universe that is created is more like the Justice League than a lone superhero who fights crime by himself.  You have to accept that while you are a superhero, technically speaking, there is nothing extraordinary about you, since there is every other superhero from DC running around, and millions of other players who have created their own superheroes.

Really, I think there are more superheroes than regular citizens.  I was expecting to be able to be a Batman-style character who is a lone wolf fighting crime; instead, I was thrown into a superhero network with bases, more like Professor Xavier's Mutant Academy than Gotham City.

The main thing you should concern yourself with is making a few characters with different powers and keep the one that works for you.

And despite the problems I had with character customization, once you do make a character, you can keep them the way they are.  Unlike many other MMORPGs where your outfit doesn't mean anything after you complete the first quest (because you get new armor that completely undermines the time you spent giving your character an outfit), DC Universe Online allows you to turn on and off the visuals of the outfits you acquire, so you can gain the benefits of the armor without having to look like an idiot.

Another cute feature of character customization is that you pick three colors for your outfit (at first I thought it was restricting, but how many colors does your average superhero have, really?), and when you gain new armor and wear it, it matches your color scheme no matter what it is.

Even ugly colors, which is what I went with.
This definitely helps differentiate players, so that even if everyone were wearing the same armor (and nobody is), the colors would be different enough to prevent cloning.

I must've gone on for a page in my WoW review about how poorly they did character customization and armor rewards for quests (and brought the topic up again in another article), and I think DC Universe Online fixed all of those issues.  This is character customization done right (limits based on the fact that it's a superhero game ignored).

Overall, the visuals are pretty solid, the missions really mix things up beyond fetch quests, and the action and controls are above average for an MMO.

I still have my gripes, of course, like the level design, respawn woes (the only truly game-breaking mark of Satan to be found), and a few minor issues I haven't mentioned.  But once you accept the universe, a few of the bigger issues go away.

So despite my initial disappointments and frustration, it turned out to be a much better game once I cleared my head, gave it a second chance, and went with the flow rather than letting my expectations guide my experience.

While it's not as good as it could be, it's high above average when I'm grading on the curve of what's out there.  It's a game with potential, and is heading in the right direction.  I hope it pulls the MMO genre along with it.

And then we have another company pulling in the opposite direction.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Deconstruction: DOOM - Part VIII: E1M1

This part of the deconstruction is a video, as promised.  My apologies for its crudeness; as I learn video editing, the videos will become better and better quality.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

1 Hour Impression: Fable III

To be fair, I gave this game about an hour or more of playtime, in the spirit of this new feature here on Scattergamed.  This should have been a five-minute review, since I wanted to shut off my Xbox in disgust that soon into it.

But let's begin at the beginning, with a cute little opening involving a chicken.

The chicken, while certainly engaging in a Disney sort of way, was a little too distracting, since I didn't pay much attention to the voiceover, which is the thing I should have been paying attention to from the get-go.

After the intro, I find my character in bed, with John Cleese trying to wake me up.  That is a seriously poor choice for voice acting -- not that I don't like John Cleese; I enjoyed him in plenty of movies -- but it's that I recognized his voice so quickly that I could no longer view him as the servant, just John Cleese.

I'm going on an adventure with Basil Fawlty.  Lovely.

Using big name actors to voice your game is fine, but if you're going to do it, do it right.  Linda Hunt as the narrator of God of War worked; Michael Clarke Duncan as Atlas did not.

It's a fine line between clever and pushy with voice acting in games.  You should use voices that are "those guys" -- actors with voices that are recognizable, but not so recognizable that all you can think of is a role they played.

Next, I got used to the controls, a little annoyed by them but figured I'd get used to them soon enough; after all, Shadow of the Colossus was hard to get used to, but it was a great game.

The little fairy dust that led me around in the beginning was a cute little tutorial touch, but once I got ten minutes into the game I started to get really annoyed that it wouldn't go away.

Somewhere around this level of annoyance.
I understood that I was being led by the nose at first, so I could get used to fighting, pulling people, talking, zooming in on conversations, etc., so I gave the game some slack until I finished the tutorial stage.  As far as tutorials go, it was mediocre, but I shrugged and moved on.  I was sure that the story would pull me in soon to move me along while they showed me the controls.

And then the story really started, and it pushed me away farther than I thought you could push a person.

First, your brother is evil for the sake of being evil; he was a villain because the game needed a villain.  He looked like a villain, talked like a villain, and acted like a villain.  Dr. Evil was more subtle than this guy.

And that's when I discovered that Fable III follows the "Game of Thrones" method of plot contrivance:  give someone two choices when there is an obvious third choice.

Now, here I am as the main character; they want me, the player, to take the role of the Prince.  They don't even name him, just so I can pretend it's me (although there is no character customization at the beginning beyond male/female and two sets of clothes so he looks nothing like me).  So I should be able to make the choices I would have thought of in that circumstance.

The King decides to kill a bunch of rioting commoners, and the player character steps in.  The King decides, on an evil whim, to have the player character make the choice between killing the rioting commoners or killing a girl who is his friend (who I suppose has been his friend for years).

Evil people have soul patches, you know.
Now, I will accept awful characterization because the writers just want to hit you in the gut with a 100% pure evil villain, no polyester.  But I will not accept being forced to make a choice because the mechanics, not the story, said I had to.

By this I mean that, when I was told to choose between my friend and the commoners, the only two options that appeared on screen were those, yet in the actual scene, everything, and I mean everything was set up for me to punch my brother in the face.

Everyone in the room was on my side, knowing my brother was evil, no one was holding my hands behind my back, no one was threatening my own life, no one would have stopped me if I killed my brother and declared myself King.

I should have been able to.

If any one of those factors in the scene were changed, I would have accepted my fate and picked between the commoners or my friend; if I was handcuffed, or there was a knife to my throat, or if the guards and others in the room were on my brother's side, then it would make sense that I couldn't choose to just attack him.

Hell, I would have accepted being given the option, then getting killed immediately, then being told to start again.  It would have been a dick move, but it would not have been in any way as dickish as the convoluted choice they gave me.

So I picked my friend to be killed since that was the obviously good choice, both in numbers and by the will of my friend (she said she was okay with dying to save them), so it was hardly a choice at all.

The lack of subtlety was astounding.  This is a variation of the classic 24 dilemma:  terrorists are about bomb a mall and kill 300 people.  If you stop them, you won't stop their next attack which will kill 1000 people.  If you let them kill the 300 now, you can prevent them from killing 1000 later.  What do you do?

But with that dilemma, you're faced with 300 people in the moment vs. 1000 hypothetical people later, and it's the time factor that is what makes it a dilemma.

There is no dilemma here.  Either save 20+ people or save 1.  The fact that one is your friend and the 20+ are commoners means nothing to me at all, because I, as a player, have not developed any kind of relationship with the friend.  I hugged her, led her by the hand around the castle, and let her die.  That is the extent of my relationship.

I'm sure the protagonist has a years-long relationship with the woman, but I don't, so I don't care.

Besides that, if I were real royalty, the fact that the 20+ were commoners should have made a difference (being that, to royalty, a common life is not worth as much as a royal life), but since I, the player, am distinctly not royalty, and I haven't been playing the game long enough to roleplay properly, the fact that they are commoners changes nothing.

There is always a job for the peasants in my castle.  Like target practice.
So I was given this choice, and the buttons even floated on the screen telling me what to push.  I pressed other buttons; I tried moving a stick; but my character would not move, as if he suddenly was in a sticky floor emporium.

This is the reason I wanted to shut the game off in the first five minutes.  It's like reading a choose-your-own-adventure book and being presented with the choices of "If you would like to jump off a cliff, turn to page 12.  If you would like to slit your wrists, turn to page 58."

What kind of a choice are you giving me?  The third option in the 1 vs. 20+ scenario is "attack the King".  I just learned how to swordfight!  My assumption was attacking him was what I was supposed to do from the start; there was no way they would teach me to swordfight and then not let me swordfight.  That's like teaching me Tae Kwon Do and then throwing me in an MMA fight but arbitrarily telling me "No Tae Kwon Do."

But no, attacking the King doesn't work because the normal melee attack button is being used as one of the two choices!

But enough of this nonsense.  I decided to just kill my friend and be done with it; everyone seemed to agree with it, so whatever.  Albion has wacky morality rules.

We have reached critical wackiness.
The game couldn't save itself from this, but I decided to play further anyway, just to be a nice reviewer.

The rest of the game just annoyed me further.  Context-sensitive buttons were silly, like how sometimes I just had to press the A button, and other times I had to press and hold it, though there was no specific reason for either.

It's like they were trying for that God of War control scheme where sometimes you have to hold the button to open something, and other times you have to tap it repeatedly.  But in God of War it makes logical sense depending on what the object is you're interacting with, and feels natural; in Fable III, the choice is random.

Next I got sent into sewers.


So now I want to shut off the game twice in ten minutes.

How many games have you played with sewer levels?  A hundred?  One-fifty?  And how many of them had good sewer levels?  Zero.

But let's grade on a curve here.  Excusing the fact that it's a sewer level, it didn't act very much like sewers, like it was Sewers-In-Name-Only.  It seemed more like a lost city, or an underground temple, which actually would have been a great idea if they had just called it that from the start.

Only a sewer if you live above ground.
Once in the sewers, the fairy dust really seemed like the level designers' apology for making bad levels, and they didn't need it, because the level design was decent in the first place.  It was linear with little divots for treasure chests, so there was no need for the fairy dust at all.

In fact, there was no need for the dog, either.  The dog barks when there is treasure nearby, but I would have enjoyed the level much more if there was no dog and no dust, so I could just explore and discover the niches of the level myself.

I was starting to think "Really?  I'm still in tutorial mode?  At what point will they stop with the fairy dust?"  But this continues for as long as I played, even after they supposedly started giving me free reign to run around on my own.

One other nitpick to mention is that you occasionally have to dig, and when you do, you don't use your hands, you use a shovel which you apparently keep in your pocket for just such occasions.  Screw Disney, this is Bugs Bunny territory now.

And then I got attacked by bats.


How does one kill bats?  Naturally, with fireballs!

Moving on, I got to run into some skeleton warriors before leaving the sewers as well, and it was at these fights when I started to realize I had no health bar.

I think their substitute for a health bar is a heart beat and red around the edges of the screen, which would be fine if this were a game that was trying to appear cinematic.  Well, they probably were trying, but just failed.  Since I stopped caring about the plot a while ago, I was just trying to learn the mechanics and hope to have fun with the action.  In that case, a health bar would have been nice.

Eventually I discovered the old war room the protagonist's father once used, and Basil cleaned the cobwebs and taught me how to use a firearm and whatnot.

I realized the war room, being taken there through the start button, was basically an elaborate pause menu.

It wasn't awful--certainly no more so than any other design decision--but it did make me roll my eyes.

Similarly, the Road to Heroism or whatever it's called is basically a way to upgrade stuff.  I decided I didn't like the ranged weapons or the magic (and I usually don't in RPGs, being primarily a tank), so I decided to just upgrade my hammer and go full Thor.

This did not work out, especially when I entered the mercenary camp, but I'll get there.

There were also a few cosmetic customization options, such as being able to dye my hair, which would have been nice from the very beginning.

This is a similar problem I had with Tony Hawk's American Wasteland.  Most Tony Hawk games allowed you to customize your character from the beginning, but THAW had you pick a basic body type and skin color, then had you work to earn customization.

Sorry, Tony, but I don't normally have an afro, and it would have been nice if I could have been myself from the start, rather than being given a character and mocking him up to look like me.

This is a subtle but strikingly big psychological flaw in games featuring customization.  I will accept that I cannot customize my character; if I am playing Jack Sparrow, he will look like Jack Sparrow.  But to have me play one character and let me change his look later both breaks the flow of the game and is pointless.  Since the character isn't my own creation in the first place, why should I care about customizing him further?

Now, when I finally got out of the sewers and got to a cold little town, I had to buy some clothes to blend in and warm up, which was cute, and I didn't mind, since it was just clothes.

I did find it odd that in such a cold place I had exposed skin; as did the elders and, well, mostly everyone.  If it's so cold, why am I wearing short sleeves?

At this point, I ought to mention the art direction, since it's really becoming a problem.

The intro scene was a Disney-esque cartoon, suggesting that that's the type of world I inhabit.  Then they try to get realistic with the in-game graphics, which jars with the fact that I'm throwing fireballs and making black-and-white morality choices.  Then the costumes start to get wackier and wackier.

Okay, 'wacky' is unfair, when this exists in real life.
If the game were trying to be a cartoon completely, I'd have no problem with the spells and costumes, but since they tried to get a little gritty, it jars my sensibilities.

So I meet the elder in the town and he wants me to do a bunch of stuff, clearly read off a list of "Let's give the player some quests."

At this point I decided that the bloody fairy dust had no intention of going away, so I started to ignore it.  I walked around and shook people's hands, gave them money, and generally became a nice guy.

Okay, I understand that giving money will make you seem like a nice guy to all these starving, cold people.  But shaking their hands?  Really?  I walked up to random people and shook their hands all the time, gaining tons of goodwill, even doing secret handshakes and other silliness.

More or less.
I think my eyes fell out of my head at this point from rolling them too much.

There was also a curious moment here when I overhear a child bullying another child, and I think there may just be hope for this game yet.  Remember at the beginning of Fable II when you have to stop a bully?  This must be just like that moment, I thought.  So I look around for the bully and I can't find him.  Anywhere.

I just heard him five seconds ago!

The moment disappeared.  I interacted with all the children in the area and found no one that was a bully.

I gave up, disappointed, and moved on with the plot, that conveniently labeled trail laid by Tinkerbell.

So I enter a library and have to go into some dungeon area to fight some random skeletons and do some ultra-light puzzle-solving.

Remember back when I was describing the sewers with skeletons?  I was describing this part.  Oops.  Can't blame me too much, since they blend together.

These two stages are practically identical, and the only discerning feature between them is that in the first level, I have Basil and General Duglas following me, and the second level I'm on my own.

Well, as much as I'm allowed to be on my own with that dog always at my heels.

Seriously, I'm annoyed at that dog.  When I play an RPG and I have a pet or a familiar, that pet can die.  In fact, when I was in the mercenary camp later on, all of the mercenaries were shouting things about how they wanted to kill my dog, telling each other to go after it to get rid of it, and yet my dog remained untouched throughout.

World of Warcraft did a much better job with pets; Shadow of the Colossus did a much better job with pets, and I hated that horse.

Whatever; by this point, I've completely given up hope of getting sucked in.  I'm playing now just because I am unsure how long an hour is.

Out of the sewers part 2, I am told to change into some mercenary gear so I can sneak into the camp.  The clothes are fine; even the tattoo I need to get is fine, though I know I can change tattoos at will (must be henna), but the beard is just silly.  Since when can I walk into a barber shop, clean-shaven, and pick up a beard?  Must be a toupee for my face.

Next I need to make some money for the tattoo and the beard (if a fake beard and a henna tattoo cost 1000 gold coins, it's no wonder people are starving in the streets), so I played a pie-making minigame.

Not a joke.
I am impersonating a pirate-looking bloodthirsty mercenary serial killer that is terrorizing this town, and I'm making pies.

I take it back; this is not Disney-esque.  Disney has more logic.  Bugs Bunny has more logic.

And they must have known the pie-making minigame sucked, because when you mess up, your punishment is to do it some more.

I finally get into the mercenary camp and wander by a couple of guys that are calling me (or calling the guy I'm impersonating), so I oblige by stopping by.  One guy tells me to show off "that thing you do" and I have no idea what he's talking about.

My only guess is that it must be some kind of melee weapon trick because there is no context-sensitive interaction button here, so I just whip out my hammer and start swinging.

Instead of doing a trick, I crack one of the guys in the face.

Now I'm just killing mercenaries, and everyone is alerted to my presence, and know I'm not Jimmy or whoever, so the entire set of clothes I stole and the 1000 gold I spent on the beard and tattoo and the pie-making minigame was a complete waste of time.  Thanks for that ten minutes I'll never get back.

Might have been a cooler pie-making minigame.
I blast through the camp and finally end up at the first boss of the game, the head mercenary.  He makes a show of saying he wants a fair fight and no matter what the result, the other mercenaries must abide by it.  In other words, if he loses, they let me go.

Things are going well, I'm Thoring him to high Heaven, when he decides to play dirty and get his underlings in the ring despite his show of honor before.

So keep in mind that he is a completely unhonorable, untrustworthy miserable pile of secrets.  That comes into play in a moment.

But first, I die.  About three times.  My Thor strategy is not allowed by the designers.  They want me to walk in, stab, and walk out of harm's way, as the swordfighting tutorial suggested.  That would be fine if I used a sword, but the entire reason I use a heavy, slow weapon that does lots of damage is so I can tank.  If that strategy doesn't work, why give me a hammer at all?

And it is here that I discover death means nothing.  

Hindus have known that for ages, I suppose.
In fact, I don't die, and the game even makes a point to explain that I just got knocked out.  I can get back up at anytime, and the only penalty is the current bonus I've been "working on" gets reset--not that I care, since it's an automatic bonus that is given through no skill or desire of my own.  So in the end there is no penalty for failure.

Why have health at all?  Why not just make me invincible?  Sometimes I really feel like game design is stagnating.  If there is no measurable effect of dying, then you don't need to have death.  Sure, old-style death was a nuisance, designed only to keep quarters going into the machine, but at least it served a purpose.  Death today is even less than a nuisance.  But that's a gripe for another article sometime.

In the end, I beat the boss, since it's impossible to not beat him unless you put the controller down and turn the game off, and I am given the choice of letting him live and letting him die.

Now, remember how I said he was untrustworthy?  He says to me that he will leave the camp and never bother the townsfolk again, and he has commanded his men to do this too.  Now, this guy is a literal terrorist, bringing fear and death to a quiet town that is already burdened with cold and famine.

I don't trust him.  If I let him live, he will almost certainly go back to his old ways.  If I kill him, there is a chance that the mercenaries know I mean business and that their lives are on the line if they don't get out.

Wouldn't the moral thing to do be to kill the guy?

And here's where the first real moral choice comes in.  Now, at the start of the game I was pissed because I wasn't given the third option that was clear as day, obviously possible, and the most morally righteous thing to do.

Here, there are two choices, and I'm okay with that.  I don't personally see a third option.  Killing the guy is the better moral choice.

But that's the immoral choice, and when I picked it, I lost moral standing and became slightly eviler.

Okay, end of game.  I tap out.

The designers knew they messed up here.  The options on the screen actually show that letting him live is angelic, and killing him is devilish.  The button icons literally show pretty clouds or fire.

I know I am picking the immoral option, according to the designers.

And the designers felt the need to tell me ahead of time which option is moral and which is immoral, because in reality the options would have been reversed.

I already said how silly and illogical the morality of Albion is, and this confirmed it.  Before this, it was quirky.  Now it just goes against my own sense of morality.

I'll save the virtues and problems with binary morality systems in games for another article, because by now this 1-hour review is taking about that long to read.

All I can say is that I'm glad Fable III came free with my Xbox because I would have felt gypped had I paid for it.

It is immoral to sell this product.