Difficulty and Creativity

Lower difficulty accommodates a broader range of playstyles and options. Higher difficulty increasingly demands optimization and can make every fight a puzzle boss.

There are more and less effective ways of accomplishing goals in games. For many people, theorycrafting and metagaming are the game, and the real fun comes from figuring out how to manipulate rules and situations for optimal effectiveness. There is a lot to be said for this approach to fun. If you enjoy strategy games, this is probably what you enjoy. Wringing the most value out of every move and option is the heart of strategy gaming.

Many care less about that. They have concepts they want to play, toys they want to use, or “I’m just here to have fun.” It does not matter if the flamethrower is 20% less effective per point than the shotgun; they just want to watch the world burn. At an extreme, there are those who love the difficulty of execution, and they will intentiontally make suboptimal choices to prove they can succeed under those conditions.

High levels of difficulty tend to restrict the range of viable options. In easy fights, like solo MMO play, a silly concept build works just fine, and a perfectly optimized build just saves a little time. As difficulty increases, the number of viable builds narrows (given constant player skill). Difficulty gets tuned this way: playing at the highest difficulty, you may need great execution and a great strategy and an optimized build. If not, the highest difficulty could be made even harder.

The Queen’s Gauntlet in Guild Wars 2 was a good example. You could sleepwalk through most of the fights with an optimized mesmer, and I’m told that warriors were also strong. Other classes needed to struggle and adapt more. Stronger classes and builds could keep their usual skills and talents; some people needed to switch up weapons and abilities to beat some bosses. More skilled players could do more with less, but the DPS check (X hit points, Y seconds to defeat it) limited that.

You can also optimize fun and silly builds to make them viable at higher difficulties or use optimized builds for casual play to compensate for unoptimized playstyles (inexperienced, lazy, drunk, limited physical capabilities). One of the joys of character optimization in Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 was seeing experts take mechanically weak ideas and make them viable characters rather than burdens that needed to be carried by the rest of the party. “We swapped some feats on your whip-wielding halfling cleric, and if you take these spells, you should be back up to par.” The car looks the same on the outside, but because it is souped up under the hood, it handles better when conditions get rough.

: Zubon

Mechanics, Flavor Text, and Warmongering

In Seven Wonders, the blue cards are civic structures like aqueducts and temples. They do nothing during the game but are worth victory points at the end, like victory point cards in Dominion. The red cards are military structures. At the end of each era, players compare how many “shields” of military power they and their neighbors have, and victory points are awarded accordingly (simulating battles). You see the same dynamic that you see in Civilization, where aggressive players go for red cards and compete, while others hoard blue and green (science) cards in self-contained path.

You can build a functionally identical system but change player behavior by changing the flavor text. Keep the mechanics the same but flip the names: that barracks is now a theater that produces “scrolls,” and at the end of each era players compare how much cultural influence they and their neighbors have, and victory points are awarded accordingly (simulating immigration). The former civic structure cards now all have military names, and military prowess does nothing during the game but is worth victory points at the end (which is just as coherent as having aqueducts and courthouses do nothing during the game while they could be given a mechanic showing that they promote health and justice). Better yet, let’s do a three-way trade: now science works like the civics cards did (points per scientific discovery at the end of the game) but the military works like science did; the symbols are now archery, infantry, and cavalry, and you get points for either or both of having one really strong or a complete set of combined forces.

In all those cases, the mechanics are identical. We are just changing names and colors on the cards. But I’m willing to bet that warmongers will still accumulate legions of infantry in that last example, while more peaceful players like me will gleefully compete with their neighbors culturally. It is what I loved about Civilization IV: using cultural imperialism to have enemy cities riot until they could join my empire. You can see the same thing in modded games: take the necromancer, have it summon unicorns and rainbow friendship friends instead of ghosts and demonic worms, and suddenly you have a whole new class that appeals to a different demographic. Tanto Cuore is Dominion re-skinned as a game about Japanese maids, which made it an instant must-buy for one of my friends but drove away other friends who are happy to play Dominion.

: Zubon

Preparation

“The will to win is not nearly so important as the will to prepare to win.”
— attributed to dozens of coaches

While execution is crucial, the most important parts of the game can happen before you play.

What hardcores are doing that casuals are not is preparing to win. They are theorycrafting, studying builds, practicing skill rotations, learning maps, and generally investing time that will lead to better execution. They are not thinking on the same level as the casual player. While I am playing Starcraft and thinking, “I’ll build a drone. I’ll build another drone. I should probably get a Spawning Pool soon,” the hardcore player is already executing “6 pool” and has most of his brain left to think about how he is going to beat me. To say nothing of games where you can stockpile resources so that playing more means winning more.

Examples outside online gaming are even better. Go watch a local non-professional sporting event and pick out who has been doing her endurance training. Teams fall apart in the fourth quarter because they are tired, while the teams that ran more laps can keep going. Rote learning is actually really valuable1 because you just know things without needing to look them up, think about them, or work them out. Ender’s Game has a lovely bit from Bean’s perspective; he might be the smartest person on the planet, and he can re-derive all of geometry from Euclid, but he needs to study because he won’t have time to re-derive all of geometry on the test. Martial artists practice their kata endlessly because you have less than a second to react to that fist coming at your head.

No one has time to do this for everything. Most of us are casual for most of the things we do. Casual players are entirely reasonable when they say, “It’s just a game,” and they have more important things to do with their time. But hardcore players are just as right when they say you need to put in the hours if you want to get on their level.

: Zubon

(1) Provided what you “just know” is true.

Strategy in the Smallest Things

Do you ever lose track of which units/buildings/whatever in the game are yours? Lately, I have gotten into the habit of intentionally picking the least desired color so that there is less cognitive load from trying to remember which color I have this time. My friends argue over who gets red or black this game, but no one fights me for these Cheetos-orange pieces. Bonus points if you get your own set of meeples and use those for board games so yours are always distinct.

: Zubon

Casuals

On the one hand, I don’t get the use of “casual” as an insult. “Casual” could reasonably translate to “sane,” particularly in the MMO world. They spend only a few hours a week playing? Yes, that’s a good idea. Games designed for casual players are more accessible, have a comfortable learning curve, and can be enjoyed in relatively small increments.

On the other hand, I completely get why “hardcore” players do not want casuals in their (our) games. Some games require a heavy investment to really pay off, and there are levels of play you cannot reach without practice. If I am trying to play at those levels, I will not be happy about having teammates or opponents who are just there casually. There is a difference between shooting hoops in the driveway and playing basketball in a competitive league. Relatedly, hardcore players reasonably scorn games designed for casual players because they are often shallow, with a low skill ceiling.1

“Mastery” is the concept I think I want here. Casual players are there to play, to have a bit of fun. Hardcore players are there to master the game, and that is where their fun is. Neither is a wrong way to approach playing games, although one might be ill-suited to particular game, and conflicts arise when you put both sorts of players on the same field, whether in direct competition or simple interaction from playing with the same toys.2

Many of the best games have both casual and hardcore appeal. They can be enjoyed with a minimal investment and enjoyed further with greater investment, without making the casual players feel like they are being excluded. But you know Sturgeon’s Revelation, and those relatively few games are “the best” because they capture that rare pinnacle.

: Zubon

(1) Casual players can reasonably scorn games designed for hardcore players because they are often unnecessarily complicated, with a huge investment required for limited reward beyond the cognitive dissonance that it must have been worth it.

(2) Good PvP matching systems help separate those two groups to make competitive games. Oddly, the market is one place where casuals and hardcores can interact to mutual benefit. Hardcore speculators love profiting off naive casuals, and naive casuals can immediately cash in for what they consider a decent price without even noticing that they could have gotten 12.4% more if they had researched market trends. Capitalism, ho!

Quick Review: Dear Esther

Pretty but shallow. Lovely visuals and sound, but it gains nothing from being in a game format. The story is evocative but never completely gels. I am told that there are semi-random elements, which would be an advantage of the game format except nothing makes that apparent and how many people want to walk through the game again in the chance that the verbal part will vary randomly? Also a reason why the story may not gel; it must support multiple, conflicting stories at once.

Great atmosphere, marginally worth the time (~hour), certainly not worth the price. You would be happier watching someone else play through the game, which is the same effect except for holding down the W key.

: Zubon

Quick Review: The 7th Guest

I remember when The 7th Guest came out. It was cutting edge for its time, with amazing graphics that made the first real use of a CD-ROM. I acquired it in some pack or another on Steam and tried it recently.

Yep, it plays like the cutting edge of 1993. The puzzles are not as hard as you may have heard but as potentially incoherent. Historically notable but not something you should go back and play.

: Zubon

Challenge Selection Paralysis

I have gradually been getting started on Dishonored (yes), and the achievements for the game are giving me ideas of how I might go about playing. Several amount to challenge modes like “play it as a pure stealth game,” “don’t kill anyone but your target,” and “don’t kill anyone” (I presume you can defeat the bosses without killing them yourself). But I have been finding myself somewhat paralyzed by wondering what closes doors and which achievements are mutually exclusive in ways you will not find out until half-way through.

Some are obviously mutually exclusive. “Don’t kill anyone” does not work with “kill lots of people quickly” or “kill people in a variety of ways.” Some are less so. It is not a priori obvious whether you can go through the whole game without (1) alerting or (2) killing anyone or (3) learning the magical powers. For example, maybe going undetected in some area requires killing a guard or possessing a rat or something. And then most games have non-obvious ways of failing challenges, so presumably keep lots of save files.

I am trying to plan ahead to economize, because it would be disappointing to learn that I could have passed a challenge if I had done one thing slightly differently 10 hours earlier. Dishonored is gratifyingly non-spoileriffic with respect to that, having big ticket challenge achievements (“play the whole game this way”) rather than highly specific things you would need to read in advance to know about (“acquire the herring before chopping down the mightiest tree in the forest but do not use the herring to chop down the tree”). This is also an virtue of Dishonored’s reportedly short (~20 hours) playtime, because playthroughs are not epic commitments. Dishonored has the downside that you can repeat missions but cannot retroactively un-fail challenges by not killing anyone on a second try.

Or maybe you can now? Probably not, but researching a bit has led me to many questions whose answers changed over time. For example, it seems that killing the assassins in the tutorial prologue used to count against “don’t kill anyone,” but now it doesn’t, and there are several other places where players found challenge-failing triggers the developers decided should not count against you. So researching turns up answers that may be outdated or inconsistent, and for best fun find a discussion between people who played different versions of the game where the rules changed, so we have experiences and maybe even videos verifying inconsistent answers.

I could alleviate some of this by not badge-hunting, but I like badge-hunting, and “challenge mode” is a special sort of badge-hunting that I think most of us can endorse. Now if only I could set the game to recognize which challenges I was trying for, indicate when they have failed for some reason, and give me the chance to rewind back through auto-save points to fix that. That would be a nice little feature.

: Zubon

Quick Review: Gone Home

Gone Home is an interactive story, not a game. I loathe visual novels but I enjoyed Gone Home a great deal. It is a small story, about which not much can be said without spoiling it, but the comments are open for spoiler-filled discussion.

Gone Home has a short play time, around two hours. There are no monsters nor puzzles nor combat, just exploration and discovering the story at your own pace. You arrive home from the airport to find the house deserted. Go inside and find out what happened.

Two things made the game for me. First, Sarah Grayson’s voice acting as Sam. She’s great, especially when [spoiler]. Second, I really enjoyed the contrast between what the game seems to be and what the story is. Negatives: the main story is not something you cannot find better in a book; the side stories are more sketched than written (also perhaps their strength); the locked doors that structure the narrative are an obvious artifice. But seriously, Sarah Grayson.

I got Gone Home on sale, and I might hesitate to recommend it even at the 75% off, $5 price point versus “worth playing if you get it in a Humble Bundle.” I found it worth the time.

: Zubon

Metacritic reviews are very polarized, with the negative anchored by folks who missed the “no puzzles or combat” thing and spent $20 for a 2-hour non-game.

Customer Service

When you support an online application, you are supporting the entire computer. This past week, I have troubleshot network connections through VPNs, pop-up blockers in Internet Explorer, and file problems caused by the latest update for MS Office for Macs. Anything that keeps the user from using your system is a problem for you to solve.

: Zubon

I still don’t have a solution on that last one, but I have a workaround.