Monday, December 5, 2011


This is the latest game I finished. I even got through all the DLCs since they came with the game of the year edition. Borderlands is a long shooter and something has clearly been done very right to keep players interested. Although one of the key selling points is co-op play, I actually enjoyed the entire game just fine in single player mode.

1. Power-tripping to the max

I guess there's no denying it. Finding randomized loot is disturbingly addictive. Think back to Diablo. How repetitive the mechanics in that game are? Really, really repetitive. However, the hook of character development in games like Diablo, including Borderlands, is constant empowerment. Every chest is a chance to obtain a better weapon, and every kill is a step closer to the next level. Role-playing games are built on this stuff. It works. Finding that exceptionally good weapon is followed by a gratifying power trip and for a while enemies are dropping like flies. At some point they catch up again making the game more challenging, but eventually you'll get another power trip. And so it goes...

2. Keeping the game going 

Borderlands is by no means a challenging game. Especially if played after Dark Souls. However, they do the lack of challenge right. Besides, it's a power-tripping game. One particular trick I liked about the game was Second Wind. It allows fallen players to make a comeback by killing one enemy before bleeding to death. The player gets back up with a portion of their health and fully loaded shields, putting them back into the fight. This keeps the game going most of the time, but there is still enough risk in dying that it is usually to be avoided. It's also possible to (ab)use Second Wind as a tactic (e.g. leave one severely wounded enemy alive, then kill them quickly if you go down). This did feel a little stupid in some boss battles, while in some others it was fairly useless. Overall though, I think this mechanic is cool for a game like Borderlands.

3. Enemy design again

Most of the time the enemy design in Borderlands is sound. Especially critical hits put enemies down very quickly, and their weapons are often really powerful. Occasionally though there were enemies that simply took way too many bullets to put down. I emptied several guns against the final boss for example, and in one optional boss in the earlier half of the game I almost ran out of all ammunition. Partly this was due to the level scaling of damage which I found a bit weird. This meaning that the level difference between the shooter and their target was a factor in the damage formula. Against a higher level enemy even really powerful guns were not doing much. Most of the time the game is paced well enough so that player level is in the same ballpark with enemies. Except...

4. DLC difficulty balancing

One thing I found very weird was the intended level range for the DLC expansions. Three of the four expansions were designed exactly for the same level range. This is weird because the player is likely to gain at least three or four levels during each expansion, which means they will be overleveled at the start of the next expansion. Although one expansion was really nasty for its level range, this still feels like a really weird decision. Sure, there's no guarantee that players will be getting all the expansions. However, that's the way expansions have been made pre-DLC era: the next one will always be more difficult than the last.

5. Random tidbits

Another curious thing about the DLCs was that they were much better written than the core game. Funnier humor, tighter plots and even wackier characters. It felt like the development team hadn't let their writers loose enough when making the main game. Should they follow along the DLC guidelines in Borderlands 2, this bodes well.

Another random thing I just briefly wanted to talk about is the use of cell shading graphics. It makes the game look really characteristic and most certainly stands against the test of time much better than realistic graphics. Like sprite graphics, cell shading just might be a sound artistic decision for games that don't necessarily aim for a wow-effect but rather like to look unique.


I think Borderlands is deserving of all the praise. I went in expecting little since I'm not a big fan of shooters - especially not long ones - but came out highly enjoyed. There's still the biggest challenge undefeated but I'm gonna look for a co-op partner to level up enough and take that bastard down.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Stage Game Jam Post-Mortem

I'm taking a little detour from design analysis to share some insight on design, programming and project planning of our game jam project from last weekend. It's mostly going to be programming though, and mostly don'ts - we didn't finish the project in time. We got quite close though, so I'll come back to the design once some final bugs have been squashed and some levels have been created for the game.

I'll try to add some pictures soonish...

1. Scoping

I've game jammed successfully twice this year. Both games were in fact quite good. They were also very well scoped down, and thus finished. This time around, I decided to take more risks with the scoping, and also do stuff I've totally not done before. This project definitely ramped the challenge up from the last two as evidenced by the fact that we were unable to finish in time with three full-time programmers and one apprentice. We had three main tasks: gameplay engine (it was a platformer with some twists), graphical effects and sound system. None of these were trivial, and no one in our team had really done anything of the stuff they were going to work on. I was in charge of the gameplay engine since we were developing with a library that I was the most familiar with.

Nevertheless, I think the scoping was realistic. In fact, I think our effective working time per person was less than 20 hours - clearly less than what I've had in previous game jams. Ultimately, we were not very far from first playable level. We had some minor bugs, some of them ignorable with level design. What we really lacked was levels. Kind of hard to show any gameplay with them. However, looking at the list of what we actually did build, it's fair to say we did really well. Here are some highlights: isometric platformer with climbing instead of jumping, sound system complete with radio channels and static between them, knobs for tuning frequencies and level elements affected by these frequencies, and finally, enough high quality art for a few levels.

On with the lessons...

2. Lesson: JavaScript with sleep-deprivation is bad

Okay, I think this for me personally was the biggest factor hindering development. I was already tired on Saturday morning when we started actual work, and around 8pm I was way too tired. Programming anything should not be done tired, but JavaScript is special. It's really easy to make invisible errors with JS and tracking them down is really freaking annoying. Moreover so when tired. When tired, it's increasingly hard to escape one's thought patterns, leading to looking over the same piece of code all over again because "the error has to be here somewhere" when ultimately it is not. JavaScript has this annoying tendency to quietly accept almost anything. Between Sat 8pm and Sun 2am I really didn't get that much done, but I did get really annoyed. Hindsight: I should've left around 10pm and come back earlier on Sunday.

3. Lesson: even when used as constants, magic numbers are still really bad

This one was my biggest personal failing, since I can't really blame any of the tools on this one. 2D-programming is often riddled with all sorts of offsets, margins and whatnot, because of the way sprites are handled. This is especially true for isometric 2D as sprites can hide behind each other, and characters are not standing on top of floor sprites but in the middle instead. All sorts of constants. The mistake I made was basically that I did not have any system, I just made estimations for each value using Stetson-Harrison, and at some point the entire system just crashed down on me hard. So hard in fact that I was only able to recover the situation on Sunday morning after a night's sleep. In the end, I did it right in about two hours and now the system makes a lot more sense. I also actually measured all the offsets from the sprites (this would have been impossible earlier though, since the sprites were not finished and we hadn't really agreed on any specific measurements).

4. Lesson: isometric graphics in a platformer = way more trouble than it's worth

When we started out I was thinking about simple side-view 2D. However I didn't communicate this clearly enough, and our artist started with isometric graphics, and me, not realizing what a pain that would end up becoming, okayed it since it did look pretty damn good. What a big big mistake. See, one of the biggest problems is that while in side-view 2D collision detection is easy, with isometric it is not because the sprite size is not equal to the space it takes in the game's internal logic. To further complicate the issue, the library we were using did not support custom hitboxes for collision detection for both parties. Since none of our sprites were equals of their hitboxes, there was trouble. Unfortunately even more so, because I tried to figure my way out of this mess with offsets and margins.

Another problem with isometry is the z-order of sprites. For example, when on the left side of an obstacle, the player sprite has to be behind it, but when on the right side, it needs to be in front. This got even trickier when we chose to use climbing instead of jumping (a sound decision, jumping in a horror game does look a little silly). During climbing from the left side, part of the player sprite needs to be in front of the obstacle (the top half, which is above the obstacle) while the rest is behind. This was solved by splitting the player sprite in two parts during climbing, and was not that hard in the end. Another consequence of climbing is that the sprite can only climb a given fixed height without making the animation look stupid. This is just a level design issue though, and indeed most platformers have their level elements placed on square grids anyway.

Later on I also realized that this is going to come back to haunt us with our ghost enemies, because they can move through everything in the game. It's going to be pretty damn painful to figure out a system where they can at the same time be in front and behind objects...

5. Lesson: plan for earlier integration

Three programmers working separately is okay, especially with version control. However, I would advise planning for integration at milestones, not just the end. It's really crushing to motivation sometimes to only see your part of the game nearing completion, and never getting a glimpse of the end result until, well, the end. We did this mistake in the last game jam where we literally had no idea if the game idea would ever work before it was about one hour away from complete. Fortunately it did work... This time around, since we had no time to make any actual gameplay, I'm still not sure if this idea actually works. So yeah, the old wisdom of prototyping early should be followed in game jams as well.


I guess that covers it for now. As promised, I'll get back to design after I have had the chance to make some gameplay. The game will be released online and be playable without any special plugins, so you can hopefully see the end result for yourselves as well.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Dark Souls

Since I spent all of my free time for over a month playing this game, I suppose I should share my perspective of it. A lot of these points apply for Demon's Souls alike - after all, they are mostly the same game. In case you don't know, both Souls are famous for being ridiculously difficult (on today's standards) fantasy action roleplaying games. That, and very high quality gameplay.

1. Feeling of danger through difficulty

Being ridiculously difficult is not just a thing in the Souls games, it's a core part of their essence. These games are certainly tests of patience, but that's not all there is to it. Difficulty introduces some serious feeling of danger to exploration. Nothing in Dark Souls is to be taken lightly because even the most rank and file enemies can slice through a careless player in seconds. Entering a new territory is always a bit unnerving because death lurks quite literally around every corner. The suspense is often more than most horror games have at their best moments, and Dark Souls is not even competing in that genre.

Even the most difficult enemies would not be much without a threat of serious loss. The immediate effect of dying in Dark Souls is to have to return to the last bonfire rested at (think checkpoints) and have all the enemies respawned. That, and leaving all your unspent souls (experience and currency) and humanity (another resource) behind with your bloodstain. The final catch is that not only you have to defeat all those enemies again, should you fail to reach your bloodstain, everything is gone. That can hurt. A lot. It really doesn't help that when a lot is at stake, it's easy to lose courage and change fighting style to more conservative. Again, wise in many games, but often a grave mistake in Dark Souls.

High difficulty and a lot at stake are in fact both key elements for creating a real feeling of danger, and this is where horror games often fail. Furthermore, in Dark Souls there is no taking back, because the backstory allows the protagonist of the game die and revive. The game saves constantly whenever something happens, and that way doesn't allow for second chances. Whatever you do, you have to live with. I got a good taste of this when I was swinging a big sword a bit too close to an NPC and accidentally hit her, making her aggressive. There went my ability to buy miracles for the rest of the playthrough.

2. Fair game mechanics

Although the shouts from my apartment at 2 am might suggest otherwise, Dark Souls is in fact overall a really fair game. Sure, it takes a lot away from you if you fail, but there's not much else to blame than yourself when it happens. The rare moments when it doesn't feel particularly fair are those few when From Software is really testing the limits of the word. Most of these are simply the player being stubborn and not adjusting their tactics but a few times From Software crosses the line. My "favorite" would probably be one boss where you are facing a ratlike demon, armed with two big-ass swords and accompanied by a couple of dogs, in a room approximately the size of your kitchen. Try and evade... and don't even dream of blocking.

The game focuses a lot around combat, and on the surface the system is quite simple. There are not scores of different attacks, just a few for each weapon. Defense is handled by movement and blocking. The key thing is quite simple: (almost) polygon-perfect hit detection. Evading blows by careful movement can be done with confidence. Simply put, if the attack visibly does not connect, it misses. There are no magic hitboxes that would make attacks that seem to miss actually hit, and nothing is random. It's up to the player to learn the reach of every attack so that they can effectively position themselves in all situations. There is not much else in the system really, neither is there need for more.

The system encourages two things: careful observation (read: patience) and confidence. Impatiently attacking when there is no window to attack is suicide. Having too little confidence in one's own judgement leads to never being able to attack, and ultimately making a mistake such as backing off a cliff. Curiously, this is quite close to what actual melee fighting feels like (based on my 2 years experience of fencing), except for the cliff part. In fact, of all the games I've played, Dark Souls feels the most like actual dueling, although it doesn't look like it. So yeah, cowering behind a shield is not a strong tactic in Dark Souls, and against many enemies, their attacks need to be dodged by rolling towards them.

3. Making enemies difficult - the right way

This one is quite simple. Most of the enemies in Dark Souls don't have a lot of hit points, but they do a whole lot of damage. Often they are also fairly hard to hit safely, especially if facing more than one at a time. I like this paradigm of enemy design, as it makes for interesting but short fights instead of boring slugfests. This way also not all enemies are defeated the same way, which is always fresh. In general, high hit points should only ever be allowed for some boss fights, and even in them used sparingly. From Software clearly understands it, and Dark Souls is a better game for it.

4. Doing healing right

Another interesting thing done right in Dark Souls, and one of its biggest improvements over Demon's Souls, is the way healing is handled. The player holds a flask that can initially be used 5 times for healing. The flask can be recharged at bonfires. The system successfully defeats the common problems of item based healing: farming and having too many (which makes all taken damage trivial). Healing also takes some time, and the AI now clearly reacts by charging forward as fast as possible as soon as the player tries to take a sip. Just like everything else in the game, healing mid-combat is a risk.

5. Innovative on/off multiplayer

Another thing the Souls are famous for is their multiplayer system. The games are and are not multiplayer, and players can choose how much they want to take part in online activities. There are two online aspects: passive and active. All players partake in the passive online experience. This means seeing ghosts of other players in their own game world, seeing messages left by others (and writing their own) and being able to touch bloodstains left by others to see their last seconds before dying (and maybe avoiding the same fate). These are all interesting features and especially the messages allow players to lend a hand to others by giving hints and warnings. The message system is console friendly and allows only selection of message template and keywords from lists. This also evades the issues of verbal abuse.

Even more interesting is the active online content. Explained very briefly, players can visit each others' games under certain conditions either as helpers or invaders. While especially the invasion concept sounds a bit catastrophic, players can opt out of all this simply by not being in human form. However, in order to benefit from the aid of others, human form is also needed, which opens the host to invaders as well. What is cool about this whole system is that it's integrated into the single player experience. If I want to help, I'll draw my summoning symbol, go off to fight my own baddies and see if I get summoned. The same mostly goes for invasion: I start the invasion process, keep doing my thing and if an opponent is found, I'm summoned to their world.

I liked especially the helping concept. As was said, the game is tough. Really tough. While I myself am stubborn enough to want to defeat everything by myself, a lot of other people can really use a hand in some of the tightest spots in the game. As a helper, you get to play the role of a protector and it becomes your task to see that the host gets the next boss down successfully. I also like how the game puts a lot of limits on communication since players can only do gestures. There is something in these brief encounters where you just appear into someone's virtual life for a while, shield them from harm the best you can and then when you get the boss down together, you part ways. I really like this concept. It also sounds a bit like what Jenova Chen's next game Journey will be about.

I'm not much of a griefer, so invading the worlds of others has less appeal to me, although I do enjoy a fair duel. In Dark Souls, the introduction of covenants makes this a bit more interesting because now there are more ways to invade. I especially like the covenant whose members are summoned to fight against sinners (players that have been indicted in one way or another). Overall the covenants make player vs player somewhat more interesting. Still  I feel they have a lot more potential that wasn't fully realized in Dark Souls. Maybe next time? The biggest thorn in pvp's side at the moment is...

6. Careful with the balance

Unfortunately Dark Souls has some serious balance issues at the moment. Before going in, let it be noted that the next patch, already out in Japan, seems to address every single issue. So although irrelevant in the near future, I find it useful to highlight some of the biggest mistakes. I'm going to skip the glitches as these are honest errors, not design choices. Pvp in Dark Souls contains a lot of movement and the most clearly imbalanced tactics reduce the opponent's abilities to move. One ring makes the wearer untargettable, which in the game's terms means it's really hard to face the right way when fighting them. The worst offender however is a spell that makes everyone else around you move a lot slower and unable to dodge roll.

Another thing that's screwed up is weapon balance: elemental weapons that do not have their damage depend on the wielder's stats are far too good, most of the time stronger than stat-dependent weapons wielded with high stats. In a game that supposedly has a huge variety of tactics, making one type of weapon a no-brainer selection certainly hurts balance. Finally there's poise, a concept that is new in Dark Souls. Heavy armor grants you poise points, and poise reduces stagger from attacks. The introduction of the concept is a sound idea since heavy armor in Demon's Souls was crap as it slowed down movement too much. However, poise in pvp is not particularly cool. Fighting someone with high poise is frustrating because they will never stagger, which means even when you hit them, that doesn't stop their attack. Of course there are tactics against high poise, but in general I think it reduces tactical variety.

Single player game is also hurt by the imbalance, because at the moment there are some tactics that are vastly superior. Wearing heavy armor and casting Iron Flesh is one, as it makes even bosses do negligible damage, and they cannot even stagger you. There's also a shield that can throw a projectile that does ridiculous damage. They also introduced pyromancy, which is a form of magic that doesn't depend on any stats but is nevertheless equally powerful. This is bad as it devalues stat-based magic and makes high damage magic projectiles available to any build. Unsurprisingly, the next patch tones pyromancy power down. They also repeated one mistake from Demon's Souls, which is the access to a really good weapon that surpasses everything by the time of its earliest acquisition and for a good while afterwards.

While in single player it's always possible to choose not to use any of the overpowered tactics, I feel it is frustrating that at the moment there exists one clearly superior build (pour everything into two vitality and endurance, use elemental weapons and pyromancy) that other builds will never match. It's also kind of annoying to know, after dying for the Nth time against the same boss, that if only I used some of the OP tactics, this would be ridiculously easy. It also takes something away from the game's reputation. Like, this game is very difficult *unless* you know this and that trick in which case it in fact becomes pretty easy.

Dark Souls is a very successful design effort in many ways. It has the best combat system of any action RPGs I have played (well, tied with Demon's Souls obviously). It creates the feeling of danger more effectively than most horror games exactly because it is difficult. It has a multiplayer system that I actually want to play, as it is so strongly integrated into the single player experience. On top of everything else, the game has a world well worth exploration. The only flaw with the game at the moment are its balance issues, which are going to get fixed real soon, and some performance issues. Dark Souls demands attention and patience but it also rewards in kind.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Lord of the Rings Living Card Game

Now that we got the LCG concept out of the way, it's time to dig into my current favorite. The new LotR LCG does a lot of interesting things. Let's take a look.

1. Co-operative play with constructed decks made possible

This I find a rather interesting combination. Usually co-op games are pretty tightly tuned packages to ensure a certain level of challenge, although they do differ quite a lot in randomness (usually there's lots of it, to retain replay value). The interesting twist in Lord of the Rings is that players play with constructed decks just like in any other LCG (or CCG for that matter). But wait, doesn't this mean that balance gets thrown out of the window? In short, yes, in many ways it does. However, there is not just one game, but as of writing there are 7 different quests available. Three quests are in the basic sets, and each expansion pack has its own.

These quests have different grades of difficulty. The most difficult quests are in fact designed to be tough enough to actually require quite optimized decks. Especially the notorious Escape from Dol Guldur, the toughest quest of the basic set, is pretty much impossible to beat without customized decks. There is enough freedom left for quest designers, which means that the challenge provided by each quest is not only of varying difficulty, it is also of different kind. A deck optimized against one quest may fail miserably in another. In the end, when each player has a very good deck and they all play together nicely, the quests do become kind of easy though.

The fact that they can keep releasing new quests is what I think keeps the game alive and interesting. Just like expansions keep traditional games fresh, but more often. Although I do think they should definitely make them harder and harder with each expansion, because players are piling up more customization options and playing experience. In a way the experience is actually quite similar to certain types of computer roleplaying games. Players make character builds (= decks), and test them against the game's challenges. New expansions come with new build options and new challenges.

Of course, since it is an analog game people play with their friends, nothing stops them from making it more difficult if their hypercustomized decks breeze through every challenge. Looking for good ideas myself.

2. Interesting solo play

Another curious thing about the game is that it's the first analog game I have greatly enjoyed playing just by myself. Tuning my deck so that it can beat all the quests solo without any changes is surprisingly satisfying. For the record, at least as of now, most quests are in fact much harder solo than with 2 or more players, especially, again, the notorious Escape from Dol Guldur. This is actually an interesting side effect of co-operative play because one downside of living/collectible card games has always been deck testing. The only way to really test a deck is to find a lot of opponents who play different decks. The nature of LotR makes deck testing easy because all the possible challenges are always available to be tested against.

3. Multidimensional challenge

The game is out to get you in many ways. There are always two main sources of trouble: on the one hand, encounter cards on the staging area make it difficult to progress in the game; on the other hand, engaging enemies is troublesome as they need to be defended against, or risk taking damage. Every conflict in the game, be it questing or combat, has an element of uncertainty. For example, in combat, enemies have shadow cards dealt to them. Often these do nothing, but they can have highly devastating effects, especially if the attack goes undefended. For this reason it's usually best to defend against all attacks, but defending exhausts characters. A lot of things in this game does, which means that players have to carefully consider what to do with each character.

It doesn't stop there either, because quests can have their own unique challenges. One quest has a rather strict timer in the form of an ally that takes damage each round and is quite hard to heal. The game itself has a rather slow timer as well, because each player's threat rises every round by one.

4. Careful with the card design!

Balancing a game like Lord of the Rings is really hard work. The people at FFG have done quite a good job, but they're not quite there yet. The problem is that there is one clear path to victory: a deck that is able to produce a lot of resources and a lot of card draw can pretty much handle everything, regardless of what strategy it plays. No quest so far punishes these types of decks. This is of course a quite standard CCG convention, where more is more. The problem I think is that especially in terms of resources, there is one clearly superior way of getting a big resource boost in the form of one card. Since this card is from one particular sphere of influence (the 'colors' of this game), being able to play cards from this sphere tends to make decks a lot stronger. At least the card is unique which means there can be only one on the table (between all players).

The same is almost true for card draw, but at least here two spheres have quite feasible options for drawing, and all have some means. Fortunately the designers have included fairly feasible ways to include cards from any sphere to any deck, but nevertheless I do feel a little disappointed that to play a solid solo deck, I am pretty much forced to include this one particular card in my deck (and a maximum number of copies of it, of course). However, I think the issue is fixable by including similar acceleration cards (with different mechanics) to other spheres. Although each sphere does have its own thing, I think resource boosting should be available in many forms instead of just one that is clearly superior.

I don't think that resource boosting are card draw should be the "thing" of any particular sphere, because to me these are more like the prerequirements for a functioning solo deck. It's also a bit nasty that in multiplayer, the one and only really good resource boost can only be used by one player. Besides, the sphere that has this card, also has another "thing", buffing the players as a team. So while I'm all for having highly distinctive spheres/whatever in games, it should be not so that one sphere is practically irreplaceable. I'm going to try to make a deck without that one particular card though just to see how it goes.


As a concept, the Lord of the Rings Living Card Game is very clever, and mostly superbly executed. The game is still taking its baby steps with "only" four expansion packs out. It will remain to be seen how the game changes, especially with the upcoming bigger expansion.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Living Card Games

Instead of a particular game, I'll go through a game concept this time. One of the newer innovations of Fantasy Flight Games is the Living Card Game concept. The LCG is a twist in the usual collectible card game concept: instead of selling cards in random content packs, LCG cards come in fixed packages. Usually there's a starter set with all the mandatory cards, tokens etc that are always needed, and some starter decks to get players going. A typical pack includes as many copies of each card as is the number of copies allowed in one deck. Basically it throws out the collectible nature of CCGs and replaces it with traditional style (mini) expansions.

Since I'm not a big fan of CCGs anymore, I find the LCG to be an excellent alternative. There is no card rarity, which means the price of cards will remain low. Since players know what cards will be in a particular pack of cards, they can only buy the ones that have useful cards. The concept allows anyone to create whatever deck they desire without dishing out enormous amounts of money for rare cards. This makes deck-building much smoother as there is no longer a need to agonize over not being able to use a card because it's too hard to get. While players will still spend quite a lot of money if they want to build really good decks, no money ever goes to waste, and there is always a clear upper limit. Once a player possesses all the expansions, there's no need to buy more.

Since it's a deck construction game, useless cards will still pile up. The downside is of course that since the same cards are easily available for anyone, there is not much of a trading element, which means players are stuck with the cards they don't need. I guess some trading is possible between players of different decks, as no one's going to need all the cards from a given pack. Unless making multiple decks of course. Another downside of the format is that there are less different cards than in collectible card games. Because every pack is guaranteed to have exactly the same cards, and multiple copies of each, the number of different cards per pack is quite small. While the developers could push out packs more quickly, there will be a saturation point.

Overall, I think the LCG is a smart design. It appeals to the board gaming audience much more than CCGs do, but nevertheless it retains the fun of deck-building and endless customization. While the card sets are quite small at first, they'll expand over time. It's also important that there is a basic set that on its own provides a fun gameplay experience, for gamers who don't want to bother with deck construction but like the mechanics of the game. It's also good that it's easier for players to control how much money they're spending for the game. This appeals to people who find the CCG business model distasteful.

I started out with this concept post so I can more easily discuss my current favorite LCG next time...

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Mirror's Edge

This game is one of my current generation favorites. It's too bad we're not likely to see a sequel. It's sad because with some polishing (read: reducing enemy encounters) this concept could easily be one of the best games ever. There are a lot of things done right in Mirror's Edge. My thoughts.

1. Eliminating the HUD

I don't remember if the HUD of Mirror's Edge was really gone, or was it just optional. Nevertheless, my experience with the game happened entirely without it. The game is designed in such a way that it plays perfectly without one. Again, I think this works very well for immersion. Not to say that games with a HUD cannot be immersive. All attention is paid to the game world itself when there is no additional information on the screen, and this can have a huge effect on the playing experience.

One important HUD element in many games is the minimap or similar navigational device. Mirror's Edge has a different way for offering guidance: objects in the game world that lead Faith towards her goal are shown red in the otherwise white game world. Although I first considered playing without the visual aids, I pretty soon turned them back on. The gameplay experience is so much better when the player can run with some decent knowledge of where to go.

2. Tricks to increase physicality

I like to describe Mirror's Edge as the most physical video game I've played. Of course it's not physical in the same way as dancing games. It's physical in the sense that the player is given a vivid feeling of being Faith. The developers have used several neat tricks to achieve this feeling. First of all, Mirror's Edge is in true first person: the developers had done their best to put the camera into Faith's eyes. Looking down, her legs are actually visible, and of course we can see her hands actually perform all the climbing, vaulting and whatnot. They've also made the camera move in pace with Faith's step.

They've done the same with the game's soundscape. Players hear not just Faith's footsteps but also her breathing. Oh and the grunts and all the other noises. The crash of Faith hitting the pavement is one of my favorite dying sounds and made me feel really bad about screwing up. It usually goes without saying that soundscape is much more important for immersion than graphics, and the developers of ME have nailed that.

3. Simple yet powerful controls

The final piece of the puzzle are the games controls. Most of the game is played using only two analog sticks and two buttons. One button means jump, the other means crouch. These are contextualized in a natural way. Crouching while running means slide. Crouching while falling means roll. There is a high sense of mastery in playing Mirror's Edge because while things are relatively easy to do (thanks to the controls), the game never feels like it's doing things for you. Even the toughest tricks still have to be fully performed by the player.


The real genius in Mirror's Edge's design is how everything comes together to support player immersion. The designers have carefully removed everything game-y from the game in favor of a strong experience, and they have been successful. The flow of movement in Mirror's Edge feels really good, thanks to the combined effect of all the things mentioned here. I've yet to play a game that would get close to what ME does in terms of pure joy of movement. Of course, when movement is the game, it better be good.

Monday, October 10, 2011


A non-digital this time. Ascension is a rather fast-paced card game in the vein of Dominion. It's been designed by Magic the Gathering pro-tour champions, and boasts to introduce the MtG experience in compressed form. Surprisingly, this is not that far from the truth. Since this is the first deck-building game analysis, I'll start with that mechanic.

1. Deck-building game

This new trend of card games was pretty much started by Dominion. The core concept in all these games is that players start with a fixed deck of cards, ten in Ascension. These cards are the shittiest cards in the game, giving very little resources. The point of the game is to buy cards from the table and add them to your deck. The experience of playing these games is not unlike getting the experience of building your deck and playing it, only both at the same time. What could be more awesome?

A careful observer might notice that at its core the mechanic is the same as any other game where players spend resources to produce more resources and do other useful things in the future. This is definitely true. The basic mechanic of deck-building games just makes the process really interesting and smooth. On any given turn, you get five cards out of the cards left in your deck. What's the best use for them? What cards should you get to improve your average hand? Turns are usually over fast. Usually, unless some or another killer combo comes up.

The concept of the average hand is highly important in deck-building games. Since hands are always random, mindlessly buying good cards can actually lead into a very bad deck if those cards don't work together well.

It is also typical to deck-building games that not all the cards in the game are available in each game. Quite far from it actually, as usually the cards available are a rather small subset of all the cards in the game, especially since these games spawn expansions like no tomorrow. This pretty much ensures that no two games are ever exactly alike, and new strategies come up even after hundreds of plays. The downside is that once the amount of cards becomes large, the setup gets a bit annoying.

A lot of these games are mostly multiplayer solitaire, although on occasion there's cards that affect other players.

2. Center row & portal deck

Okay, back to Ascension. Unlike a typical deck-building game, Ascension does not feature a storage that is randomized at the beginning of the game (storage is the pool of available cards). Instead it features a center row with six card slots and a portal deck. Cards are drawn from the portal deck to the center row so that it is always filled with six cards. This mechanical change to the norm has two pros.

First, it hugely decreases setup time (although after the first expansion, shuffling the portal deck does become a bit difficult). Second, whereas in other deck-building games I've played strategies are usually cemented at the beginning of the game (if you change mid-game, you are screwed), in Ascension players have to play more flexibly because there is no knowledge of what cards will be available in the future.

The center row also provides some means for players to affect each others' strategies by buying off or banishing cards they think other players might want. This is much harder to do in other deck-building games because the supply of cards is usually sufficient for all the players to get the ones they really want. Denying players of cards is a viable and often necessary strategy to keep opponents in check.

The flipside of this mechanic is that sometimes the center row does introduce more luck of the draw into the game. There are two basic cards that are always available, but they are not comparable in power to cards from the portal deck. Then again, this is why players need to stay flexible, to make use of the cards available to them on their turn.

3. 2-dimensional economy

Ascension has two resources that the players use: runes and power. The former is used to acquire cards (basically money) and the latter is used to defeat enemies. There are really few cards that provide both, so players need to make choices. Focusing entirely on one is a gamble - if the center row does not favor your strategy, you are majorly screwed. Staying balanced on the other hand makes it difficult to get the best cards or defeat the monsters with the biggest rewards.

Building a deck that does both effectively is the holy grail of Ascension, but quite hard to achieve. To get there, players need to acquire cards that improve the deck's infrastructure but these cards don't usually provide any resources. Decisions, decisions.

4. Constructs

Usually cards in deck-building games are only useful on the turn they are played, and then it's off to the discard pile with them (until they come up again once the deck is depleted and the discard pile is shuffled to become the new deck). In Ascension there are constructs that stay in play unless a specific effect discards them. This introduces a new deck type into the game, one that slowly builds these more constant resources (which have weaker effects than heroes) to improve their average turns.

Such a strategy can have huge payoff, but it also poses a big risk if certain effects trigger. It also is blatantly obvious to other players, which makes it easy for them to deny you the cards you need for this strategy.


Ascension differs from most other deck-building games by the portal deck system. None of the game's innovations are new but rather cleverly adapted mechanics from other games. The designers have looked for inspiration outside the deck-building genre and created a highly enjoyable game. Ascension is particularly successful in dealing with the two common problems of deck-building games: setup time and the multiplayer solitaire symptom.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Lumines Supernova

I wanted to write about Lumines... again. Just wanted to point out the things that make Lumines awesome. Lumines is a block dropping puzzle game. The main hook of this game is how it connects its soundtrack to sound effects triggered by game events, making it a highly involved interactive audiovisual experience. The mechanics also happen to hide a really solid game, and here are my observations of some of the causes.

1. Non-solid blocks

In Lumines, when you land a 2x2 block on top of previous ones so that half of it is left hanging in the air, it doesn't remain that way. Instead, the blocks that were left on top of nothing break off and fall down until they hit something solid. It doesn't sound very revolutionary, and indeed it's not particularly new. In Lumines this mechanic ensures that it's more challenging to figure out how a block will end up. Players need some experience to see what's the best way to drop a block into a particular spot on their "construct".

It also means that when a player "undermines" (connects and destroys blocks so that some of the destroyed blocks are underneath other blocks), they again need some experience to see where all those blocks that fall down will end up. In short, the mechanic makes the game less static, and therefore more challenging to entirely figure out. Setting up combos that make use of this mechanic is an art form in itself, and something I have yet to master.

2. The beat line

In Lumines, when the player connects rectangles of four or more blocks, these are not immediately removed. Instead, they are marked for removal. A beat line constantly passes over the playing field, left to right, and as it moves, it erases all blocks marked for removal (and scores them). This mechanic affords big combos, as the player can build lots of rectangles for removal before removal takes place. It also adds a bit to the player's cognitive load as they need to be aware of which blocks are not going to be around much longer while they are placing new blocks. Combine with the previous mechanic, this makes it sometimes quite challenging to figure out what's a an optimal move for a situation.

Another interesting dimension about the beat line is that its speed affects how a level plays. Levels where it moves slowly afford big combos, but are harder because more blocks will accumulate on the screen between removals. This is especially true in levels where the beat line is really slow, and the falling speed of blocks is really fast. The difficulty of levels in Lumines is therefore controlled by two parameters instead of one, which adds a lot of variance to progressing through the game. Which brings us to the next point:

3. Nonlinear difficulty progression

Lumines does not simply change both its difficulty parameters constantly towards more and more challenge, but instead some levels downplay the challenge in one of the parameters and increase in the other. The levels are arranged such that the toughest levels are often followed by somewhat easier ones. I like how this gives the player a second chance after a hectic level which is almost guaranteed to mess up their stacks. Often in these slack levels scoring is not as important as improving the block structure for the next tougher level.

The downside is that this makes the game much longer to play, as it becomes "impossible" way slower than games where only one difficulty parameter constantly ramps up. After the full cycle of 20 levels, the overall falling speed of blocks increases, so eventually the situation is going to get out of hand (for me its at the first half of the third cycle). The definite upside is that one mistake is not going to ruin the entire game. There is always hope. "If I can make through this level, I can fix that problem. Not all is lost."


Lumines (Supernova) does a lot of things right. It puts a huge cognitive load on the player and succeeds in keeping a player in flow for a long time by introducing non-linear difficulty progression. Thanks to the huge cognitive load, the game is really hard to master. It stays interesting a long time.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Dead Space

To kick off this new blog, I'll start with something recent. To me anyway. I suddenly had an urge to resume Dead Space. I stopped playing it after a couple of chapters last year and thought I'd never touch it again. Now it's done, and it was in fact quite enjoyable. Observations follow.

1. Why Dead Space is not scary

In this Gamasutra article, Dead Space and several other supposedly scary games are pitted against each other in a scientific study. I cannot say anything about the other games since I have not (yet) played them, but Dead Space is not particularly scary. It was this disappointment that made me stop playing the game last time. Based on my prior observations of horror games, I'll point out the problems.

Dead Space falls into the same pitfall that undermines a lot of suspense from the Silent Hill series: there are lots of enemies. Killable enemies at that. This is a huge problem, because it has been acknowledged time and again that once the threat can be dealt with, it becomes a lot less scary. Enemies in Dead Space do take some skill to defeat effectively but typically they are gone in seconds. Dead Space also does not do a whole lot foreshadowing. Mostly, enemies just appear from somewhere, sometimes trying to get that cheap surprise scare.

While the game is very grotesque, it rarely got me particularly disturbed. By fluff the necromorphs have been human, but when you encounter them in the game, they are so far removed from traces of humanity that the deformation effect does not kick in. They don't look like horribly mutated humans, they just look like monsters. The ghosts in Project Zero (Fatal Frame) are actually more effective in evoking this effect, and they are not even physical beings.

Finally, Dead Space by design cannot evoke the scarce resource effect. Fighting enemies is a core mechanic in the game, and therefore there was no way for the designers to limit the resources available to the player so that ammunition would be actually scarce. Okay, sure, I'm a gaming veteran and I can get a decent hit ratio, so maybe less skilled players will have to deal with scarce ammunition and occasionally take out monsters in melee. However, I remember how things were in System Shock 2 where ammunition to weapons really was scarce. The reason why I think the scarcity effect does incur fear is that although you might have the tools to deal with enemies now, what if they come in such numbers that you don't have enough.

I'm not denying the atmosphere of Dead Space. It was fairly strong. The game just was not scary.

2. Ammunition, Dead Space style

I do now know how popular this mechanic is, but this is my first time encountering it. In short, there are next to none pre-determined drops / crates / items laying on the ground in Dead Space. Instead, the player will always randomly get ammunition for one of the weapons they have equipped or some utility item. On paper this might sound pretty good: players get to use the weapons they like. On the flipside, players are never forced to fight with suboptimal weaponry. I remember how in System Shock 2, availability of ammo played a big part on which weapons to use.

This mechanic might sit better with some games, but I didn't particularly enjoy it in Dead Space. It gives little incentive to make use of all of the weapons and the randomness feels a little bit cheap. It also allows gaming the system by having less weapons equipped. Having enemies drop items consistently also has a side effect: the player can be sure that an enemy is dead when they see the drop. Since some enemies in Dead Space in fact do feign death, this kind of ruins the surprise.

3. Don't aim for the head

Dead Space challenges the headshot trope of shooters. Although cynically speaking it's just replaced with limbshot, the mechanic does in fact serve the game well. Tearing enemies down limb by limb is the name of the game. I liked to start with legs. The point of this mechanic is that damage has a big impact on how the enemies perform. Especially shooting their legs off. It definitely adds to the grotesque feel of the game. After a lengthy battle, the place is littered with severed limbs and limbless torsos.

The mechanic alone would not be as effective without weapons that fully support it. The very first two weapons in the game are best examples. The plasma cutter is a precision tool that can make horizontal or vertical cuts making it far more interesting than your usual pistol (although it is in fact pretty much just a pistol). My favorite weapon in the game, the line gun, fires a wide cutting line which can easily sever both legs off of multiple enemies at once. Oh and there's ripper, an industrial remote-controlled saw blade, which is an excellent tool for close quarters combat.

The limb shooting mechanic and brutal weapons combined make defeating each enemy a highly satisfying experience of mastery. I enjoyed shooting monsters in Dead Space a lot more than in many games I've played previously.

4. The cool UI

Dead Space is highly successful in integrating everything into the game world. The sci-fi theme affords this without suspension of disbelief, and I liked the floating menus etc. as soon as I saw them. Ditto for the guidance system. The simple but clever trick employed in the game is to display every GUI thingy as a holographic projection in the game world. That's all, and it works like a charm.

I do believe that in games that put a lot of emphasis on atmosphere, UI designers should strive to make the HUD go away entirely, and in Dead Space the designers have succeeded without taking any information away from the player. Overall, the designers of the game have done a fairly good job of minimizing the suspension of disbelief.


Dead Space is a good shooter. Its action is satisfying visually and mechanically. The designers have put several solid innovations into the game and made it highly enjoyable. They have done a good job with minimizing the suspension of disbelief. They only falter with the weird resource system. However, Dead Space is not very scary, suffering from the common problems of horror games where a lot of monsters are fought.