Selective Quoting

Featured review on the Steam page for Eador: Masters of the Broken World: “Eador’s design is worth your time – a testament to its strength.” If you follow the link to the review, you see that is the second half of a sentence. “Despite its often-disastrous implementation…”

It seems like a fair assessment. The ideas underlying the game are great. The implementation is poor, from the frustrating controls to the useless battle difficulty estimates to the strong randomness that can swamp strategy and leads many players to recommend save scumming.

“Worth your time” seems somewhat dodgy based on the amount of time you are willing to spend. Playing through the whole campaign will take hundreds of hours, with most of those replaying the early game enough times to unlock late game options, the same thing that drove me from Reus. But perhaps skipping the campaign and playing a one-map game would be more interesting.

: Zubon

Roguelikes

I have been trying some roguelikes and games with roguelike elements.

Roguelikes seem shaky on the concept of a difficulty curve. They tend to have difficulty cliffs. Start, maybe a tutorial, good luck. And you know I’m all about the new player experience; creating an unwelcoming experience for new players is just poisoning your game, making sure it dies except for a dozen grognards who populate the last forum about the game and curse out new players looking for help as lazy idiots who should go play Angry Birds because they’re not willing to put in the time to learn how to play properly. Some roguelikes have heard about difficulty levels, but those tend be levels, not curves; either it adjusts the height of the cliff or makes it a plain. And too many games think that adjusting the numbers is an interesting way to scale difficulty.

Roguelikes seem shaky on the concept of balance. Players enthusiastic about roguelikes seem to be of the opinion that it is okay for difficulty to randomly vary between “doable” and “not even theoretically possible” because it is random. That’s the full justification: yes, you have effectively been given a 1000-piece puzzle with only 998 pieces, but you never know how many pieces are in the box until you put them together, and you’re not supposed to be able to put every puzzle together, so just keep reloading until you get a puzzle that does have all the pieces. I have seen advocates of balance via save scumming. I rather find it a large design problem if you can make all the right decisions and still lose. Which is to say, there was no “right” decision, so you had no meaningful decisions to make. But people like slot machines, too.

This is certainly not all roguelikes. Sturgeon’s Revelation still applies: 90% of everything is crud. But roguelikes that fail often tend to fail hard and do so in ways that are not immediately obvious whether the game has hidden depths or is just broken. I’m perfectly happy to invest small amounts of time in the face of randomization, but then you find creatively horrible ideas like “how about a 4X with roguelike elements?”

: Zubon

Quit Curves

The corner of a difficulty curve often becomes a quitting point, partly because it is a change in the game, partly in the way an extreme one feels like a betrayal of the relationship the game had been establishing, and sometimes because it indicates the developers are not very good. While Portal perhaps goes too far in making the first half+ of the game a gradual tutorial, it does have that transition into “and here are some harder puzzles, and now you’re on your own.” Do you have a favorite example of a game that says, “here are some tutorials, and now we’re jumping straight to the highest difficulty”? The Witcher 2 is notable for making that jump before completing the tutorial. Either the developers did not recognize that they turned the dial from 2 to 8 or they thought that was a good progression, and neither implies, “these people probably made good design decisions in other areas.”

: Zubon

Quick Reviews: PC Ports

Another weekend of “meh” from Humble Bundles.

Deadlight is a side-scrolling zombie survival platformer. Run away from the zombies, sometimes shoot or chop them, climb walls, and jump from ladder to ledge to avoid the electrified ground. The atmosphere is nice, and I found any plot incoherence appropriate given that people make bad decisions in crises. I played the first third of the game but stopped there due to dodgy controls. I presume it works better on a controller; someone must have tested the PC port but been ignored when they explained that it is a horrible idea to have a move that requires left-shift, left-control, and A or D. Also having different keys for opening visually indistinguishable types of doors, unnecessarily many moves because parkour, and some generally bugginess or finickiness in navigating obstacles. Not bad if you can get past some dodgy controls, but a basic requirement of a platformer is not to have dodgy controls.

Smallworld 2 I stopped before even starting the game. I may try again due to recalling some acclaim for the board game, but from the first screen the interface is horrid. I can see how it might work better on a tablet, but it misses things you would want on a PC like labels, flipping through the main menu without loading times, and a coherent display of information. Something about “Watch the Tutorial” rather than “Play the Tutorial” immediately put me on my guard, probably because of having seen the next note before it.

AdVenture Capitalist (not from the Humble Bundle) had a recent major update. The developers took a while between updates because they realized there could be money in this thing and made a mobile version, then replaced the PC version with a port of the mobile version. This reduced functionality, again with lousy menus, and any visual improvements were offset by new visual problems. They quickly walked back some of the visual problems, yielding an interface that is slightly prettier and significantly less functional than it was before the update. I have said that a rule of thumb for shipping the update is, “Does it make some things better and no things worse?” They took the opposite path.

On the non-PC port front, I played through The Blackwell Legacy, which was a sufficiently enjoyable point-and-click adventure game, and I say that as someone who has long since stopped liking point-and-click adventure games. The developer commentary is harder on himself than I was as a player in terms of exposition dumps and absurd adventure game puzzles. I only had one real guide dang it moment, in that to get the best ending you must stop and look at your notebook during the climax of the game. Borderlands players will remember that as “wow, the game is really starting to click here, I better stop and look at my inventory.” Setting, characters, and story are pretty good, enough that I will try a sequel.

: Zubon

Don’t Explain the Joke

There comes that moment in the game where you have crossed some threshold or achieved something notable, and you want to tell someone about it. And you realize that your non-gamer friends, family, and/or significant other would not understand what you are talking about; that it would take so long to explain to them that you would probably lose the emotional high from trying to explain its significance; and that they would still probably comprehend at the level of “he did a good game thing.” And then, in some games, where you would still need to explain a bit to your gamer friends, and then they would probably ask, “why are you playing that?”

But just so I can say it: I did a good game thing. Thank you.

: Zubon

Quick Reviews: Quest of Dungeons and Scribblenauts Unmasked

I tried two new games on Sunday.

Quest of Dungeons is a turn-based rogue-like dungeon crawl. If you like that kind of thing, you will probably like this kind of thing. I did not see anything to distinguish it from others except for its adjustable difficulty. Based on the global Steam achievements, most players had the same thought as me and said, “take the archer class.” The game might be a bit more strategic without the ability to kill most enemies without taking any damage. I did not feel motivated to play through at higher difficulty, although I could be convinced if the different difficulties mean something other than “everything has x% more hit points” or “health potions no longer drop, good luck lol.” But then, I’m not a fan of the genre, so feel free to weigh in with your expertise. It is in the current Humble Bundle, if you’re interested.

Scribblenauts Unmasked is the latest Scribblenauts game, this time crossing over with DC Comics. I like Scribblenauts games, despite the difficulty’s seeming tuned to the vocabulary of a small child. This has a bit more of a story arc than Scribblenauts Unlimited, with the bonus of more “random events” you can have appear on maps for some variety. Of course, you can still solve almost all problems either very directly (apply the adjective “clean” to the dirty thing) or with your favorite few words (“flying,” “bazooka,” and “fire-breathing” do wonders for me). Either the developers recognized those or pick up how often I use them, which was pretty cool when a flying, fireproof, fire-breathing enemy appeared for a boss fight. The game encourages variety by cutting points for re-using words on a map and with challenges like “no weapons” or “no flying,” so the same answer could be worth half or double points.

I can’t go quite so far as to recommend Scribblenauts Unmasked because it does not seem to bring much to the table. If you want a bit more Scribblenauts, absolutely, get it. This is a retread of things you know, plus some comic book stuff. It’s a lot of comic book stuff, so you have more than a page of Robins from the various editions of Batman. Comic book folks would like it mostly for the range of things included like C-list DC villains (Kite Man!) and more than 100 Green Lanterns, although New 52 is the order of the day, which might be less thrilling.

A couple of “meh” games. They’re not bad, I just do not see a lot to recommend them when there are better games. But if you’ve already played the better games of those types, go for it.

: Zubon

MMOs – Progression or Progress?

Spinks writes a farewell to Blizzard’s publicly cancelled, unreleased MMO “Titan”. She mentions a bunch of the reasons Titan failed to see light, but the most interesting anecdote is that the biggest successor to World of Warcraft might be Minecraft.

Now we all know that Minecraft is not an MMO in large part because it is not “massive”. One could also argue the persistence of things is in question.  However, I think Spinks makes the best implicit point.

The MMO design space people should be exploring should be more like Minecraft than World of Warcraft. Continue reading MMOs – Progression or Progress?

Tips for Introverts

Many of our readers are introverts. In broader conversations about our lives as gamers, a question often comes up: “How do I even talk to people?”

Personally, I have found that the answer differs if you are a PC or a console gamer, and I don’t think we can really attribute that to the kind of person who plays on different platforms, if there is such a thing (and many play both). If you are a PC gamer, the answer is usually to walk right up to someone and press E. Right-click can also work. For console gamers, that will usually be the A button.

You’re welcome.

: Zubon

Variability and Time Investment

Love Letter is a fun game. In my first game, I was eliminated before my first turn, and in just over half the rounds I have played, I have been knocked out before my second turn. In most games, I would not tolerate that degree of lack of player control, but the game creates a low level of investment in each round of play that makes it acceptable.

Hands of Love Letter are quick. A full four-player round takes a few minutes at most. If you are knocked out, oh well, watch how this round goes and you will be back in the game shortly. Sometimes not having a fair chance is fine when you get lots of chances that come quickly; slot machines rely on that perception (although those never give you a fair chance, so the whole gameplay there is “slowly losing” with some steps backwards on the path to bankruptcy).

In Love Letter, poor luck is constrained rather than cumulative. Many games give you many chances, but if you get a bad start, you will never catch up. Lots of classic card games like Poker are very good at this: unless you are playing no-limit, your luck in one hand has almost no effect on your chances in the next hand. How many “strategy” games have you seen decided (90+% probability) in the first quarter of the game when one person has an amazing turn while another has the worst possible luck for 15 seconds?

The cumulative effect is not making you suffer through the rest of the game because of a bad bit of luck. You should never “suffer through” your entertainment. I am usually enthusiastic about Eurogames’ rarely knocking out players before the end, but if the outcome is (90+%) known and you are just going through the motions for another hour, that is a wasted hour. Finish it so we can play another game. Keeping everyone in until the end is only a virtue if they have a chance at the end; surrender in the face of certain loss is honorable, not rage quitting.

And finally, Love Letter advertises that luck and guessing are involved. It does not pretend to be a strategy game while having its outcome determined by luck of the draw. It is surprising how much players can control the outcome despite the luck of the draw.

: Zubon

“From the Makers of”

Should we care about that title and who can usefully claim it?

Some argue that Sturgeon’s Revelation applies within creators’ works, not between creators. That is, if someone wrote one really good book, odds are that s/he will still only write one really good book; authors who are good authors rather than people who wrote a good book would be the 10% of Sturgeon’s 10%. And indeed, we see many successful things that lead to disappointing follow-ups. But most of us seem to apply the heuristic that the creators of something we like will probably create other things we like. Arkham Asylum was good, Arkham City was great.

But then there was Arkham Origins, which took some good from Arkham City and mixed in manure. “Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.” Well, we blame that on having a different development team. But if you played Diablo II, there is a good chance you played Diablo III, which is a sequel from the same company but with an almost (?) complete turnover of key staff. Torchlight II might have had a better claim to being the sequel to Diablo II.

Let’s assume you place some weight on “from the makers of”; I cannot imagine all those movie trailers would use the phrase if no one did. Who should you care about? It was a running joke a few years back that developers were hiring janitors from Blizzard and slapping “from the makers of World of Warcraft!” on their homepages. Every company has turnover, and I don’t know if the people left are the ones who made the good parts of the game or the bad ones. I don’t know if the big name at the top really is a visionary leader or just happened to have the good luck of having a team member with a great idea. Recognizing great ideas is a skill, but once you’re successful, it’s easy to start thinking all your ideas are great ideas.

Some names I’ll trust, like Sid Meier. Development companies and series are increasingly losing my trust because [insert your favorite hated sequel here]. In our MMO world, you have the disconnect between the original developers and live team, such that the game you bought and the game two years later can be rather surprisingly different for the same game on the same engine.

Even if I were to never pre-order a title again and rely on reviews

: Zubon