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Archive for March, 2010

TRON 3.0

I know, I know, it’s actually TRON Legacy.  Still, it can’t be TRON 2.0, since that name was taken by the fantastic FPS game from a few years back.  (It’s still my favorite shooter, actually.)  And yes, “legacy” is a loaded word, appropriate for the movie, I’m sure.  And maybe this is really more like version 20.0… or something… but this is the third major TRON story.  Mmmmmmm…

TRON Legacy

It’s like a love letter to the geeks who embraced the first TRON, and who later became the generation obsessed with making it real in one way or another.  The throwback “neon white rocker” should have been left on the cutting floor, though.  *shudder*  Some things are best left in the 80s.

I’ll take silver blue neon tech warriors over nearly any other movie, though.  And the vehicles?  Forget Batman’s Tumbler, I want one of those TRON racers.  December will be a good month.

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Free NinjaBee Games

To counteract the whining (which was nice to purge, to be sure, but not really constructive), there’s this great news from the company I work for, NinjaBee Studios:

Free NinjaBee Games

It’s today only, and iPhone only, but hey, free games are free games!  Also, I worked as the primary artist on these games.  They are ports, so most of what I did was reduce poly count and texture sizes (including redesigning some models to look good with minimal art assets), but I also did some brand new UI work.  These are *my* babies, in a way, and it’s nice to see them get out there and have fun.

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Because everyone else is?  (Yes, a sample of three means EVERYONE’s doing it, duh. L2Logic, n00b.  Besides, it’s not like gamers have an ego or something…)

The word is “lose”, not “loose”.  Two different words with very different meanings.

If you’re going to use a key twice, make it the space bar, since it still should be TWO spaces after a period, not one.  One just looks retarded, so browsers, stop messing with my spacing, you power-mongering weasels!  I put two spaces in there on purpose, dolts!

Stop Apostrophe Abuse!

Farmville scares me, as a harbinger of the gaming apocalypse, taking the soulless vampirism of gaming to new depths.

I don’t like publishers, just on general principle (even though some actually are good), but especially when they pull dumb stunts.  I like investors and big government (Big Brother?) even less.  Parasites and leeches, along with the rest of the FIRE sector.  (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate… all parasitic, all net drains on an economy.)

Blizzard still doesn’t want my money. Then again, it’s not like Allods understands pricing, either.

Oh, and perhaps most importantly, why isn’t Nick Yee doing anything interesting any more?

Oh, wait…

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It’s My Party

One of the things that makes tactical RPGs (Final Fantasy Tactics, Disgaea, Front Mission) so great for me is the depth of customization that I have when building and developing my party.  Atlantica Online is the only MMO that I’ve played that dug into this notion of letting the player control  party of adventurers rather than a single avatar.  (No, Gibberling triplets don’t count as a party; I can’t tune them individually.)

FFT is especially fantastic since I can change character classes and even equip characters with certain off-class skills.  The flexibility is a huge strength in the game design.  I can field a monoclass team or set up a balanced mix, depending on how I play, what gear I have, or what challenges I want to tackle.  The off-class skills make for even greater depth, since I can patch up holes in my battle plan or reinforce strengths.  Success often hinges not only on smart battlefield tactics, but also on long-range strategies of party development.

I’ve written before about disliking rigid class-based design, but if there is flexibility to move between classes like that, where it’s easy and often useful to do so, I don’t mind classes.  It’s even better if the base class design bleeds across boundaries, like the cross-class skill design of FFT or the dual-class design of Guild Wars or Runes of Magic.

It’s really all about choice.

A party system makes rigid classes easier to work with.  Final Fantasy X, for example, has a fairly rigid sort of “class” design for the characters for a good chunk of the game.  You can unlock the Sphere Grid to train characters in cross-class abilities later on in the game (which is awesome, but not necessary), but for the early game, characters have pretty clear roles that roughly parallel class design.  Auron is the tank with piercing weapons, Wakka is the guy to call for aerial enemies, Rikku is a thief, Lulu is the mage, Yuna is the healer, Tidus is the fast warrior, and Kimahri is malleable.  He’s sort of a blue mage (who uses skills he can learn from enemies), but he also chooses one of the other roles early on from the other character skill paths.  (So you can have two tanks, two white mages, whatever.)

The combat works because you can swap characters out almost any time, tailoring your party to the tactical situation.  If you need a screwdriver, you’re not stuck with a hammer.  Also, you typically have three characters in your combat party, which means that you’re equipped with a variety of tools even if you’re not switching characters out.

MMOs are generally designed around the notion of people playing together, though, where “parties” are comprised of people each playing a single character.  That’s not the only way to design an MMO, though, and it surprises me a little that we haven’t seen more devs work player-controlled parties into these games.  Maybe that’s just not where the market is, but it does seem to me that it might be worth exploring the design concepts a bit, at least in theory.

Atlantica Online manages to let players control a party of characters but also encourages player grouping with dangerous dungeons.  Attempt those solo and you’re most likely to be demolished as the enemies gang up on you.  It’s also still a good idea to group up in some areas to make progress faster or more fun.  Of course, combat in Atlantica is different, since it’s tactical and turn-based (with a timer).  There are some different fundamental design choices being made there as opposed to the MMO mainstream, and I think it’s healthy.

Are there other party based MMOs out there?  Is there much of a market for them?

A MechWarrior MMO would really work best as a single-character avatar game, but a BattleTech MMO could be party based and more tactical.  MechCommander was a fantastic game.  Of course, not everything needs to be multiplayer or an MMO, but there’s some potential there at least.

If nothing else, commanding a party would make for more tactical decisions, including flanking and blocking, that we just don’t get as single-character pilots.  It also need not eliminate multiplayer game aspects, since it’s really just giving each player more tools.  Players can still play together, and may even need to for some content.  You could get some truly massive, tactical battles going on with party based design.  It’s almost a middle ground between WoW and StarCraft multiplayer, if you want to frame it in Blizzard terms.

There is a diminished sense of “role playing” as you take on the role of a disembodied commander, as opposed to the very personal single avatar.  That doesn’t completely preclude role playing, and modern MMO design isn’t firmly rooted in playing a role anyway… but it is still a downside of a party design.

There are also tech hurdles, especially if we’re going to allow the party to be split up.  Atlantica Online parties are static in combat, but malleable outside of combat.  RTS-ish tactical combat means controls and UI a step beyond hotbar Rock-em Sock-em Robot combat, and it would be more susceptible to lag.

Perhaps the biggest stumbling block is the complexity.  Party based design has the potential to be an order of magnitude more complex than the mainstream is used to.  Still, would those players who are fussing about the “dumbing down” of the genre welcome this sort of complexity?

All in all, I’m not surprised that this sort of design isn’t the mainstream, but I do wonder why more devs haven’t tried it.

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I’m still working on the cat illustrations.  Here are some quick critters I pulled out of the sketchbook.  As usual, the links lead to BIG versions, if you want to see them.  These were all done with a ballpoint pen in a Strathmore sketchbook.  Copyright to me, of course, so don’t go swiping stuff, or the black cats may come after you.

Witch Cat

Zombie, Jedi, Pirate, Cowboy, Codger

Zombie, Jedi, Pirate, Cowboy, Codger

Ghost, Pirate Upgrades, Clown, Witch broom

Death Knight Cat

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Rog started this line of thought a while ago, and I’m just following up on it a bit.

Much fuss is made over microtransaction and item shop games “nickel and diming” consumers to financial ruin.  What about those little chunks of time that games eat up?  Do we value our time enough to worry about five minutes here, ten minutes there lost to time sinks?  How much do they actually cost when we’re paying for time, not content?

Richard Aihoshi mentions health regeneration (recovery downtime) in passing (the rest of the article is good, too).

Syp notes that the lack of respecs tends to force altitis, which is a significant time sink.

Nels reminds devs of the command:  Respect Thy Player

When time is money, say, under a subscription model, how much do these (sometimes) little inconveniences and time sinks cost?  Because there is no monetary fee assigned to them up front, do we ignore them?  How much does each griffon ride cost in WoW, in real money?  How much does it cost to die (repairs, corpse runs, etc.)?  How much does it cost to get Exalted reputation with a given faction?

Of course, the cost changes depending on playstyle.  Players who play more will wind up paying less for each death or ride, which is one advantage of the subscription model.  Even so, there is a cost.  I don’t have good numbers to run with, but just ballparking it, let’s say that an average WoW player plays an insane 20 hours a week.  (A lot of time gaming, clearly indicating some level of addictive behavior, but I digress.)  How many times do they ride a griffon, zeppelin or boat, or how much time is spent in corpse runs?  I’m going to guesstimate that maybe 1 hour of those 20 are stuck in such pure time sinks.  So, 5% of the player’s time by one unscientific guesstimate.  5% of their monthly $15 is a mere 75 cents.  Five nickles and five dimes.

It adds up.

Of course, with something like Allods Online’s knuckleheaded perfume mechanic, time again costs money.  We’re just changing the numbers around a little, and charging in bits and pieces rather than in a lump sum.  When you see up front how much it can cost, though, suddenly the little gamer white blood cells get all riled up, causing an allergic reaction to the business model.  It seems to me that if either business model can be accused of slipping charges under the radar, the sub model is more pernicious about it by simply making the coin of the realm time, one logical step removed from charging money… a logical step that many players don’t make.  We’re already paying the $15, so it’s free, right?

Neither model really makes me happy.  I don’t like paying for time.  The item shop model is ideal for players with little time to play per month, and subscriptions are ideal for those who play a LOT per month.  I firmly fall into the former category, but even there, I don’t like paying for time.  Any time that devs are monetizing time spent in-game, the game design will incorporate stupid time sinks to try to cash in.

I’m perfectly happy to pay for content, though.  That’s why Guild Wars, Wizard 101 and DDO work for me.  To each their own, to be sure, but don’t forget to look at all the costs when you’re doing your value calculations.  When making accusations about business models that weren’t made for you, remember that your model doesn’t work for someone else, and it might just be because there are some nickles and dimes tucked away in the dark corners, and the coin of the realm may not be minted in metal.

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Disgaea DS has a fun little bonus for a “new game plus” playthrough. If you finish the main game and then start it again with the same save data, you not only keep whatever loot and levels you had, but you also get your own one-Prinny Greek Chorus commenting on the plot during cutscenes.  It adds a fair dose of humor, and even a few nuggets of backstory.

Greek Choruses serve a few different purposes, shifting between exposition and explanation, interpretation and instruction, emphasis and education, even serving as pacing and distraction tools, making the stage play format work.  Sometimes they tell us how to react if the script itself isn’t terribly clear.  Sometimes they tell us things that aren’t apparent by the acting, like the inner thoughts of characters.  They are a significant fudge factor, filling in the gaps in backstory and setting that aren’t always apparent when we are limited in time or technical aspects of a presentation.

Games aren’t plays, and games aren’t movies, but we can still benefit from some Greek Chorus mechanics.  Sure, we’re often told as writers (especially in visual media) to “show, don’t tell”, but sometimes it actually is more efficient to tell.  Sure, that pensive look on Oedipus’ brow shows the vast emotional range of the actor, but do all the viewers understand what’s firing in his synapses?  Do they understand the context and circumstances that moved him to stare dramatically into the middle distance?  A Greek Chorus can fill us in.

Perhaps it could be argued that those attending plays and actually paying attention do understand what the characters are thinking.  There’s a certain level of interest and extracurricular preparation that avid playgoers indulge in.  Perhaps that sort of interest and focus exceeds the modern gamer’s attention span.  And yet, we do have examples of lore fans for something like WoW.  Sure, it’s one thing to flash your Silmarillon or rattle off Aragorn’s lineage to establish Tolkien geek cred, but waxing philosophic about Malfurion Stormrage is another thing entirely.  Some gamers do want to understand the worlds they play in, and certainly the devs have poured a considerable amount of effort into making them interesting and credible.

I believe that a world that has a credible backstory (recent history), a cohesive sense of logical rules for how the world behaves (“you can do magic here, but only if you’re not a Muggle”) and a real sense that it’s lived in (a well-plotted long-term history and a sense of progression from that history), as well as interesting characters, will naturally be a more wondrous place to visit than a ramshackle Potemkin village with a few shooter mechanics.  This is especially true in RPG design.  The trouble is that players may not always get to see all of this construction.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since getting lost in a Grand Quest to save the Duchess’ Long Lost Twin Brother who has The Key to the one and only Book of Doom (previously owned by the Big Bad’s mentor, and claimed as a reward for another quest chain) that you need to read to learn the password to the Lair of the Evil Eye (and so on) can be a rather tedious affair.  Even so, if devs are writing their stories with a clear understanding of this underlying structure, the slice that actually gets presented can make more sense.

Devs need not hit players over the head with exposition to make their world interesting.  Some devs tuck story away in optional tomes found in the game world (Planescape Torment apparently had hundreds of pages’ worth of story tucked away for investigative players), some use cutscenes (that players inevitably want to skip), some just rely on smart writing to pick up enough of the world to be interesting.  When the depth of the setting and characters are left for the player to tease out on their own, those who are interested will find it, and those who just want to get on with killing ten rats will be able to do so.

Greek Choruses, or game characters that serve a similar function, can be valuable to making a world work by teasing out some of those details from within the game.  Auron is a sort of Greek Chorus for Final Fantasy X.  He’s a grizzled warrior who has history with the main romantic pair’s fathers.  He’s walked the road Yuna and Tidus find themselves on, and takes several opportunities to wax philosophical about “telling stories”, and how his story is important, but the characters (and players, by proxy), must tell their own story.  It’s his memories that serve to flesh out the world of Spira, told as vignettes relevant to the task at hand.  (It helps that the story of FFX is a fairly cyclical one, to be fair.)

Auron’s story makes the world more believable, and gives the tasks the heroes undertake more emotional weight.  The cyclical nature of the Big Bad, and how Auron dealt with the previous cycle, bear witness to the terror and gravity of the situation, and give the player more reason to push through with the wild plan concocted by Yuna.  Her line in the sand, her effort to stop the cycle, makes a lot more sense when you understand what’s really at stake.  The story gains more credibility and plausibility when we understand not only the present danger of wolves chewing on our intrepid team, but why we’re bothering with the grand operatic quest to Save The World in the first place.

The Prinny Chorus of Disgaea DS is considerably more tongue-in-cheek, but that’s the nature of the game in the first place.  It’s still a great addition to the game, not only adding to the player’s understanding of the nature of Prinnies (a key plot element), but also letting us understand the other characters a little better.  It’s notable that it’s a wholly optional aspect of the game, added simply to make the game world and story more entertaining and interesting.  It has no direct bearing on the story, no mechanical relevance, and yet, it makes the game better.

Not every game can benefit from a blatant Greek Chorus character or mechanic, but if world and story are important to the game, it’s worth experimenting, trying to find ways to clue in the player to some of the context of the story.  They can also stand in as a player avatar of sorts, reacting how a player might when they are only given a mute protagonist or a predefined story to play through.  They can be a way to lampshade some of the more notorious oddities in a game story, since humor can go a long way to making dumb things look planned or interesting.  They can call attention to Chekov’s Guns or other MacGuffins (or even be MacGuffins).  They can bridge the gap between dev intent and player experience.

Presentations can be more persuasive with a Greek Chorus in the wings, or they can at least give the sense that something Important is happening, that You Should Pay Attention To.  It’s almost an appeal to authority, where the Greek Chorus is presented as an authority on the game world who can relate to the player, while the protagonists can get on with their own concerns within the story.  That need not always mean they are reliable sources of information (in fact, tweaking the expectation that they are trustable can be a fun experiment), but they do help sell the story.

Obama's Greek Chorus

Image shamelessly swiped from this article at Fox News… yeah, they are a bit rabid at times, but that’s the best picture I could find of this particular case of a modern Greek Chorus… which honestly creeps me out a bit.  Call it the dark potential of a Greek Chorus; they can and do manipulate the reaction of the audience.  Any tool that has power can be misused, standard disclaimer, etc. …

Still, when we (as devs) are trying to present something that we consider important, sometimes it’s nice to have a chorus backing us up.  A Greek Chorus, a character or group of characters standing between the player and the dev, is another tool in the box for crafting an interesting narrative and a plausible world to put it in.  It’s not always going to be the best tool, but it can be a valuable one.

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