Thursday, January 31, 2013

Dragon's Dogma

This game was hyped in some circles quite a bit last year. A Japanese take on Skyrim was one description I remember, another compared it to Dark Souls in some aspects. So, truly, what is there not to get interested in? Well, tbh, the Skyrim part; open world RPGs are not my thing. In a sense the game is a digitalization of old schoold Dungeons & Dragons adventures. A party of four against ever an increasing threat of monsters. Monsters that have escaped from the pages of a D&D manual. With all the awesome games that came out last Autumn, this one did have to wait its turn until Christmas holidays. Nevertheless I truly expected to got into this. Turns out I didn't finish Dragon's Dogma during the holidays, largely because Dota 2 happened, but also because the game has its share of faults.

1. Pawns all around

The biggest distinguishing factor in Dragon's Dogma is its pawn system. It is an interesting concept indeed. At the start of the game, the player creates their own character and also their own pawn. In a sense, the pawn is even more important. Pawns can be summoned by other players to complete their party of 4 characters. This means it is not your main hero but your pawn that represents you in the community. This system sounds intriguing on paper and also raises questions like "can they balance it?". There is no hard limit for pawns that can be summoned, so theoretically you could summon a pawn way ahead of your main hero in levels. However, there is a cost that increases the further ahead a pawn is, so practically you are limited to pawns that are a few levels ahead. Equipment is not a factor in this cost though, which creates a major imbalance: a low level pawn with god-like equipment destroys everything.

A bigger fault with the pawn system is that pawns are by design void of personality. They have their collection of skills, their equipment and appearance (largely dictated by equipment) but that is more or less that. You may instruct your pawn to behave in certain ways, but there is no way to grant them any sort of personality. There is a large bunch of lines in the game that pawns can say, but they all say the same things albeit with a different voice. It is not much of banter unfortunately and gets rather repetitive. Granted it is clear that lack of personality is the intention and the game does not put much focus on character driven drama anyway. The emphasis is on survival in dungeons and the primary purpose of the pawn system is to create a game mechanic around forming a party that can tackle different obstacles. In reality the only reason I ever changed pawns was to keep them up in levels with my hero and primary pawn.

I think the problem is rather deeply rooted in the game's mechanics. Choosing a real-time battle system with AI-controlled allies severely limits what can be expected of said allies. The AI fights smartly, that much is true, and also according to the knowledge that has been gained by the pawn about their enemies. The achilles heel in this system is that skills in the game are rather bland and the difference in performance between pawns is remarkably unnoticeable. Only with casters there is any real difference in what spells they can cast. That aside, the only factor that truly matters in pawn selection is their attack and defense. Even if the game had more complex skill systems, I would not really trust an AI controlled ally to use them effectively. So numbers all the way. The problem is, this basically reduces every single pawn to just a few numbers (and bigger is better).

Another thing about AI controlled allies in Dragon's Dogma is that their equipment and skills are identical to what the player can have. The only difference is that the main hero can be trained in three hybrid classes that are unavailable to pawns. I realize that the purpose is to be able to have any roles your hero doesn't fulfill. The basic problem with this kind of arrangement is that if the pawns played really well, they would likely outshine the player. This I think is pretty bad. Indeed, one spellcaster I recruited at the end of the game downed several powerful bosses at a ridiculous speed. In the time it would have taken for my main hero to take down one health bar from a boss, that pawn took out five. The point here being is that if pawns are on the exact same power scale with the hero they will become more important in fights. The only special power the player really has over pawns is that he can resurrect them back to the fight.

If the pawns were actually on a different power scale and performing more supportive roles things just might work out better. Another approach could be to give the player better control of the overall battle strategy. The three commands in the game were just "go", "help" and "come". The AI handled the rest. While I think that yes, it is kind of cool that the pawns actually act based on what knowledge they have acquired, having the player be just one among four actors in a play might not be the best design. We can see how the increased player control works in Final Fantasy XIII(-2) paradigm system by giving the player more control over the actions their AI allies are limited to doing. Another game where AI allies actually worked as a mechanic is Star Ocean 3, curiously exactly because they were not very bright. However you could disable the AI or switch control during a battle. You also had the additional challenge of developing builds that worked well for the AI.

This is the problem I had in Dragon's Dogma. There just wasn't much of gameplay around the interesting pawn mechanic. Selecting pawns was dumbed down and in battle they were really independent. The important point is that they did not contribute to giving the player more gameplay. There is a thematic appeal to the pawns, and the fact that they do function very independently does create immersion. I am guessing this is what the designers went for. However most of the points I have raised here are not in contradiction to the immersion goal. Oh and the fact that the pawns repeat the same things all over again kind of breaks the immersion, especially because they are all saying the same things. I guess the problem ultimately is that the pawns have no real advantage over regular AI-controlled NPC allies. The disadvantage is that they lack personality and backstory, so it feels like you are traveling with glorified battle bots rather than with companions.

2. Into the unknown

I have been giving the game's primary system quite a trashing so perhaps I should talk about its better points now. The most appealing part of this game was traveling into unknown territory. I am guessing this is the Skyrim appeal. The world looks amazing and you can definitely run into some real trouble by taking a wrong turn. Seeing to the far end of the game world from atop of a mountain somehow always feels nice. Akin to the feeling you when climbing the very highest tower in Assassin's Creed, just because of the view. In Dragon's Dogma viewing the scenery has these "I have traveled all the way from there" and "Oh shit, that place is so far and night is falling" feelings. One of the best moments in the game was when I decided to explore whether the place I was in actually connected to another place I had been in before but through a different route. To my delight it did, and once again contained some amazing scenery.

What I found curious was that I actually really really liked the escort quests in this game. Escort quests are usually horrible but somehow traveling into unknown lands with a frail companion was an even stronger experience than simply exploring places because they are very likely to die if powerful foes are engaged. Running away from a Griffin on open plains and hiding inside a collapsed archway were strong moments in the game. To this end I actually wished the world would have been even larger to afford escort quests that could take hours to complete. And then I started to think about if it was actually possible to build a game that is simply one very long escort quest through this kind of plausible fantasy scenery. There are escort games that I know of (Ico comes to mind) but I don't think there is one in quite this sense.

Dungeons were somewhat less interesting. Fortunately they were also quite small and limited in number. By the way you better like traveling on foot when playing this game because there is not much of instant travel. There are consumables that allow you to teleport back to the world capital and you can later obtain a special waypoint marker that can be placed on the ground in a safe area. The reason I am happy the world was not that large is...

3. Repetition

This. Traveling to a new location is really cool in this game but being force to tread the same paths several times over is not. It is acceptable in some cases but not really cool in the rest. One big part of the problem is that - quest specific encounters aside - nothing changes. Every enemy is placed on the map so you will run into the same goblin ambush every time, usually on your way "there" and also "back again". There is nothing to be afraid of because you always know exactly what enemies you will face and where they are going to be, to a point that you can start figuring out routes where you won't encounter any. In some parts of the game world the whole "it's safer on the roads" is bullshit because they have planted a bunch of encounters specifically on the road. The only variation you get is the different set of enemies on the map at night time. That is all and I find it lazy and inexcusable. How hard it would have been to add randomization?

It gets worse than that though: some dungeons are also repeated. In two sequential plot quests for instance you have to travel to, pretty much the furthest end of the world into a tower and there is no way to make a single run because you have to get back to report the first quest to get the second one. I realize that constructing a world and dungeons is expensive, but really? It is borderline okay to have side quests require repeat visits to locations but plot quests, ouch. I think the main narrative at least should consist of unique trips to new locations and possibly some plausible revisits (if they spice up the journey). Although I think instant travel would have made the game worse in a way, they should have given more thought to the fact that there really is no cheap instant travel here.

Sadly repetition even carries on to the combat which is quite fascinating at the early-mid game but then just never changes. Getting all the skills for a single class doesn't take even a third of the game and after the only changes you will ever get are higher numbers in the form of better equipment (unless you want to change your class). Dunno if my class of choice was particularly dull to play (I chose the ranger type - I haven't played an archer for a long time) because all fights were more or less the same for me: hang back and release thousands of arrows until the enemies are dead. Especially true for boss fights. Occasionally I had to go in to hack a bit with knives or to revive a pawn but that was it. So I was just shooting with a bow for, whatever large amount of hours I spent fighting in the course of the game. I did like the fact that you could actually do that but yeah.

All in all boss fights in the game were bit of a grind. They had some weak points and some of their attacks or defenses could be disabled. You can scale them too like in Shadow of the Colossus (only far less interesting). Still, what it really comes down is that they just have a ton of hit points. I put part of the blame on the mechanic that uses AI allies because the optimal boss design as we have seen in say, Dark Souls, is that they deal a bucketload of damage and the player needs to know how to avoid that instead of tanking it, and they do not actually have that much health. It is just that their insanely powerful attacks make it hard for the player to get hits in. It is much harder to do this with AI controlled characters because the options are: they never avoid those attacks; they always avoid those attacks; they avoid them randomly or based on some rule. The latter is actually fine if the player has control over the factors that affect the outcome.

So boss fights eventually are just prolonged tank fests. Your pawns can even tank damage infinitely because they can be revived. Even your hero can tank damage quite well because healing items are used from a pause menu. You can even heal while stunned or while in the middle of taking a series of blows. There is just no punishment whatsoever for using items during the fight. If you look at Dark Souls again, it was freaking risky to sip that healing bottle because it took time and you could be interrupted and possibly killed while doing that. Not so in Dragon's Dogma; just stock those healing items and you are practically immortal. The only limiting factor is encumbrance which dictates how much stuff your character can carry. That, and availability of items (which is not very limited).

4. And here comes the difficulty card

During the first few hours this game will seem overwhelming. It has all kinds of systems: the pawn system, harvesting and combining materials, enhancing equipment and stuff like that. It also seems very threatening; the loading screen tips constantly remind you of how important it is to have oil in your lantern and how it is a bad idea to go poorly prepared or with the wrong party configuration. It gives the impression that you really need to take advantage of all the systems in the game to survive. Once you have gotten a bit more into the game it turns out that all this talk is just talk, at least on normal difficulty (and you are not given the option to start on hard diffculty for the first game, balls). Because there's really only 6 classes available for pawns and their class means a lot more than their set of skills, putting together a functional party is a no-brainer. Combining materials is hardly needed. The lantern uses oil ridiculously slowly.

I played almost the entire game with the same basic party configuration (me as ranged DPS, my pawn as a tank, one melee DPS pawn and a supportive mage). Most of the items I accumulated went straight into my storage and never saw the daylight again. The only combinations I did was to improve some healing items to more powerful versions (plus some experimentation to find out useful recipes). Enhancing weapons is just a matter of increasing some numbers because they have no real special statistics. This has always been a bummer for me, especially in Disgaea titles. Such a complex equipment system yet all they ever do is get better numbers. Contrast this to for instance Final Fantasy X where you put actual abilities on equipment; indeed, they don't have numbers at all!

I am quite certain that there is a lot you can do with these systems in the game. I have no doubts that a single GameFAQs guide wouldn't be a revelation. The problem is that the game simply does not require you to care about any of these things because it is just too easy. I do not know how hard the hard difficulty is. I would have liked to find out, but it was not available to me from the get-go and I am not going to go through this repetitive game again. You can select an even easier difficulty though, which I find kind of curious. How bad do you need to be to actually need that option? Here is a tip for developers: let people choose whatever difficulty they want right from the get-go. What do you have to lose? A lot of games allow players to change difficulty on the fly, so it's not like players can't tune it down if they get absolutely devastated. Still, I kind of love the policy used by From Software in their Souls games: there will be no easy difficulty - shut up and learn to play.


I have to say I was in many ways disappointed by Dragon's Dogma. I enjoyed the game in the early-mid game after I had gotten over the initial overwhelmingness but the longer the game went on the more bored I got with it. I did see it through, so it was not all bad. It really had a lot of shining moments too, and although there's a lot of rant here, it was far from being bad. You will also have to considered my viewpoint: I always focus heavily on mechanics when it comes to RPGs, especially if they do not have character driven drama (I am a sucker for good dialogue). If you are more exploration inclined, Dragon's Dogma is very likely to give much more to you. If exploration is not your thing, there is not much of a reason to play this game honestly. Although the plot does take some interesting turns towards the end and I kind of liked it, I would not play this game for its plot.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Global Game Jam 2013: Pulselight Steampunk

A new year, a new Global Game Jam and a new game! Hindsight is fun, so let's do this post mortem thing again too. Once again our local game development club Stage came through with the arrangements, and we got ourselves a jam in a perfect location. I think this was our biggest jam so far, which was cool. There were also more jammers who were not university students, which I also found to be nice. It's nice not feeling like the only ancient mammoth when getting a decent amount of sleep during the jam.

1. Theme, concept, pitch and teaming

GGJ continues its (new) tradition of artsy themes. Last year was a picture, this year a sound. The sound was a human heartbeat. When browsing through the jam games this year, expect to see a lot of hearts and blood. The same happened last year with the Ouroboros; there was a snake in a whole lot of games. Any good theme can be interpreted in a wide variety of ways. Since I immediately knew that a lot of ideas will be focused around the "heart" part of heartbeat, I decided to put more emphasis on the "beat", or - as you might guess from the title - pulse. I have been playing quite a bit of Stepmania recently, so my mind immediately rushed to think about rhythm games. Quite soon I was once again on my way to a puzzle game design, where the player would need to perform actions while staying in a given rhythm somehow.

The idea quickly started to form around a pulsating light, in the middle of the screen. The player would have to do something with the pulses sent out by the light. But what? Well, how about guiding each pulse to one or more targets? At this point there was quite a lot of Pipemania in the design, so much that the name was indeed dropped during my pitch so people would have an easier time following what the f I was rambling on about this time. The challenge in the game would be to build the power grid fast enough to hit the targets. The challenge for me personally was to somehow present this idea to people so they could understand it. That was quite the challenge indeed because no whiteboard was available during pitching (we had one, but we were supposed to write our project working titles there).

The problem with pitching is often the inability to convey a mental image of the game being developed. Especially if it is a more abstract thing. It is easy enough to convey an image if the game is "platformer with this and that gimmick" (which covers what, 30% to 50% of all jam games?) Of course sometimes the designer doesn't really know yet what the game is. My tip for pitching your game idea in a jam is to tell what the player does in the game. That is the most important thing; without that knowledge it is impossible to see the game. Some people don't need to see the game to get into an idea of course. Indeed a lot of people will be happy to just hop aboard some cool thematic aspect or a general concept of the game. Then there are people like me who want to get an idea of the game's mechanics. I call us "mechanics first" designers. What the game is about bears little importance.

In my game this year, the player places pipe sections. That is the entire mechanic. The real challenge of course is in, well, the challenge. What makes the player want to place these pipes? Moreover, what makes the player want to place these pipes as fast as possible yet into sensible locations? These questions are very hard to answer without a prototype, and really, that is what game jams are all about. The good thing about this design is that it is relatively simple to implement and should therefore afford quite a bit of time for tuning the design. This did not turn out to be exactly the truth, mostly thanks to the niceties provided by javascript (aka. the language from hell when it's time to debug).

I did initially team up with guys who had another concept in mind (mostly: alien organism that does something) and we did a bit of brainstorming to combine the ideas. As usual though I ended up being grumpy designer and shot down a lot of initial ideas. I started the work by making a grid; whatever game we were about to build, there would be a grid so making one can't hurt. After completing my basic grid code, I went to sleep. Come morning I still didn't see much of a game around alien organism. There were also a couple of programmers in that project already, and I wasn't sure a third would be needed that much. Hence I just went back to my original idea and started working by myself. This is the fourth jam in a row where I have been a one man designing/programming team. I didn't even have an artist to start out with this time.

2. Game is hard

The title of this section is my new trademark. Looking back at my jam game catalog, I have a tendency to make games that are hard to get at first. This is something I need to work on because the initial impression usually matters a lot, and if players feel like they have no idea what is going on... well, it's not very optimal. I think the only game I have developed that has needed no explanation whatsoever was Umbrella Dream from last year's Vectorama game jam (and now I recall there is no post mortem on that one) because it was a platformer with a gimmick. Abstract puzzle games are always harder. Even if the player has some idea of what are the possible actions, the game also somehow needs to make its goal and its scoring principles known to the player. Building suitable indicators for these things is tricky. This year in particular my game was highly dependent on some animations to make it somewhat understandable (and it still isn't...).

Here is a screenshot of the game (release version, except there was a bug with scoring while taking this shot so I have 0 points, lol).

The coils around the edges are the targets, and the "heart" in the middle is the power generator. You can see a pulse traveling through the network as a white flash in the screenshot. The more lit the coils are, the more urgent it is to get power there. There is also one blackened coil in the bottom row; this one has been burnt. The "lightning" that strikes through the network from the core is aesthetically very pleasing. Overall I think the game looks very good (except the shading on some of the pipes seems to be on the wrong side). I do wonder if the game would be easier to understand if all coils were initially lit and would start to lose those glowing rings when they start to fail. This would possibly have a stronger mental image of the coil needing power from the generator.

The game's design had a lot of challenges. The rhythm idea flew out of the window almost immediately. The process of building the pipes is simply too slow to really afford really fast-paced gameplay. The initial idea was to allow the player to stack pipes to create intersections where the path would split. However this proved to be technically challenging the way I tried to implement it, so for quite a while I worked without stacking. Game was hard indeed! I allowed the player to rotate pieces to overcome the handicap. Back then the game also had delete pieces come up from the piece queue, and because stacking was not possible these pieces were really important. Granted, less so after rotation was introduced. Without rotation game was very hard indeed! With this composition the game kind of worked and I could see that it could be made fun but there were two issues.

First of all, the game was now very close to Pipemania and there was nothing really new about it. Another problem was that, given time, the grid would be full unless the ratio of delete pieces to normal pieces would be made 1:1. It was also kind of a frustrating experience to wait for delete tiles to come up when they were needed. At this point I was somewhat stuck. I had counted on the stacking mechanic as an important aspect of the game and I wasn't able to implement it. Well, I wasn't, until I did what should always be done when problems arise: I took a break. Immediately upon leaving the site I figured out a new algorithm to implement the path splitting. Sure enough, when I returned to my workstation, I had path splitting working in no time. This combined with rotation created another problem though: now game was too easy! An apparent problem with this design was that you could theoretically just create a network that hits every single border tile, effectively being capable of hitting all targets that appear.

The game over mechanic was designed to combat this issue (I did foresee this on Saturday morning already): hitting a "burnt" target overloaded the system and led to defeat. However, it was quite easy for the player to simply create a network that hit every tile that was not burnt and keep generating infinite points. Not good. The mechanic changed briefly when I failed to implement stacking: fail to hit a target in time, you lose. That was however kinda lame, and I liked the original game over mechanic much more, so I put it back into the game. I removed rotation to make it harder to create an all-encompassing network and in general harder to hit all targets in time which would burn out at least some tiles. There was another mechanic to combat the issue but it felt really artificial: occasionally, burned tiles would spawn to random locations. This meant that keeping a network connected to every border tile was risky.

The mechanic that is present in my GGJ deliverable does not have this limitation mechanism. The targets spawn pretty fast, but if the player is fast enough, they can create a network that is able to generate infinite points. This is a common problem with puzzle games at game jams. It is hard to find out the right balance in such a short time. Hamsters and Plague, my very first jam game had a similar issue: there was a dominant strategy that was not only clearly superior but also very opposed to the game's design philosophy. Took me a couple of weeks to figure out how to destroy that strategy with a solution that didn't feel completely artificial. By artificial I generally mean a mechanic that has been put into a game as a direct counter to some obvious dominant strategy but that doesn't really fit into the design's big picture. Tetraic had similar issues and I still haven't figured out a solid solution.

I already have some ideas I want to try out for this game. The fact that it runs in a browser makes it a little bit more appealing to continue the design because people might actually play it as opposed to both HaP and Tetraic that are originally XNA games and need to be installed (HaP is presently in Python, but the same problem applies, especially for Windows users). The first change that I did is not yet in the release, but it might make the game more interesting: since the entire system a rather archaic device, the copper pipes are likely to overheat and melt if exposed to use too much. In game mehcanic terms this means that whenever a pipe section is used, there is a chance the tile it is in will disappear. This would be a counter-balancing force to large networks because large networks = more maintenance (by replacing destroyed pieces). It would put pressure to the player to avoid shooting power all across the board "just in case" because wider coverage means wider destruction.

One possible problem would be that this solution might be too chaotic. This could be addressed with an animation for tiles that are being destroyed. Overall, a few more graphical effects would make the game clearer I think. I am still also kind of obsessed with the idea of making the rhythm of the pulse generator have more meaning in the game. Now it just shoots pulses at fixed intervals. It is of course great to throw around improvement ideas; implementing and testing them is the hard part. I still have 6 other jam projects in need of this, so although I have some interest, I am not holding my breath. That said, this might the most probable one to get an update because it is in the browser, and the code is surprisingly clean and modular for a jam game so it is actually quite easy to modify.

3. Working solo, the hindsight

For a lot of people game jams are about making games together. However - for I am grumpy designer - for me game jams are still first and foremost about honing my game design skills. Next time around I just might wear a "will work for design credit" tag. The biggest "pro" in working solo is that you can do whatever the f you want and can do in the given time. However looking at the creations of other teams it is quite clear that with more people a lot more can be done. Of course I scope my solo projects for my solo capabilities but it often leaves very little time for polishing anything. Jams are generally not about polishing, but it would be nice to produce something that is actually great to play from the get-go rather than after several design patches (which have a high chance of never coming out).

The fact that more people = more results might seem rather obvious but of course it is not strictly so. It really comes down to whether there is actually something for everyone to do or not. This project for instance really did not have much that another programmer could have done. Some UI widgets and the scoring system, but those took me about an hour to create. It has largely been the same with a lot of my previous solo projects; the core mechanic is simply not divisible into any sensible units that could be developed independently. The question is though: am I scoping my ideas into solo projects already in conception, or do I limit the idea after I don't have a team? Something to pay attention to I guess. Maybe in the next jam I will work with a bigger team. Another thing to work on is to pitch my ideas even better. I should probably make them seem more crazy. People like crazy stuff!


Another game jam is behind me. That makes eight! I wonder how many it takes to get the title "veteran jammer". Although I am not completely happy with the result this time, it shows a lot of promise and has a code framework that does not immediately repulse improvement ideas. I know from experience that if any improvements are to be made, I should make them in the coming one or two weeks. Otherwise the entire thing is likely to be just forgotten. We are likely to have yet another game jam later this spring; there's been talk about this one being a jam for polishing previous jam games. My problem of course is that I have 7 to choose from, and at least 3 or 4 of those are prime candidates for continued development. Which shall it be?

Oh and about the name: it's my homage to metal songs that have cool sounding yet nonsensible names (e.g. Blacklight Deliverance). The latter part comes from the game's art style, the first, obviously, from the initial design idea of a pulsating light.

I also finished Dragon's Dogma yesterday so the next piece will be on that. I have also been playing alarming amounts of Dota 2, and I figure I should analyze what the hell happened. Xenoblade Chronicles is sitting on my living room table waiting for its turn too...

Thursday, January 10, 2013


Dishonored was a rare exception for me: a game I did not particularly intend to play until I read its review. Actually I did not even read the entire review in fear of spoilers. I simply looked at the score, some of the closing words and knew I would have to get this game. It was in fact my very first impulse purchase of a game on its release date for a very long time. I should not be so surprised of course; the game has a setting that is hugely inspired by Victorian England, and it has a superpowered assassin. The fact that it was a stealth game (which I am often quite suspicious towards) did have an astonishingly small impact on my decision. My liking of Human Revolution likely played a major role in setting my expectations right for Dishonored. The game was indeed very charming; not only was it artistically rather unique, it turned out to be excellent on the gameplay department too.

1. Easy does not equal bad

Let's get this immediately out of the way: Dishonored is by no means a hard game. This is largely evidenced by the simple fact that I - with my rather low patience for stealth in general - was able to complete almost every missions without raising a single alarm or killing anyone. This gets me to a point I have discussed previously: not all games need to be hard. Dishonored is more about creativity than execution. The tools the player has at his disposal are simply so damn powerful that he is more or less a god of stealth (or murder should he so choose!). It is exactly this effortless creativity that makes the game feel so open. I rarely felt I was being guided to use a certain path, or even that I was given a limited number of paths to choose from. I just felt like I was doing exactly what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it. Although the game is very different from Assassin's Creed, in this one particular aspect they are very similar.

"Modern games are too easy" as an argument for why they (modern games) suck is something I'm rather tired of hearing. Difficulty simply is not the only possible way for games to create a powerful experience. Even player taxonomies clearly state that challenge is the primary reason for playing only for a certain part of the gaming audience. The actual problem that often gets attributed to lack of difficulty (which I also do, and often, when RPGs are concerned) is that the player is not provided with any incentive to use their wide variety of abilities. However difficulty is not the only way to create this incentive as is shown by games that depend more on player creativity. Games like Dishonored. Admittedly, the game's primary superpower, Blink, is so damn good that there was little use for the other powers. However the game's perceived degree of freedom is so immense, that it is absolutely possible for a roleplay oriented player to go through it in a very different manner.

Interestingly, if the game was more difficult, there is no guarantee that the degree of perceived freedom could be maintained. In a way difficulty always comes with a tradeoff: dominant strategies. In a way difficulty in itself controls player choice in a way that is harmful to a game's roleplaying appeal. If a game is hard enough, certain choices tend to be emphasized because they have higher utility in beating the game or can even be practically mandatory. Although we can argue that such games should be designed in such a way that are choices are equal, they rarely are. I will be the first to say that there is absolutely nothing wrong here in a more broader sense, but if a game wants to appeal to a roleplaying audience then it must be acknowledged that too much difficulty will be hurtful to it. You might argue that the most hardcore player will always find a way to do exactly as he likes. However, the roleplaying audience is not guaranteed to have the patience for training so much! (for the sake of clarity, by roleplaying I now mean playing a role, not the act of playing a computer RPGs)

All that being said, I think in general the stealth game genre benefits more from letting the player make it through in their own style. Increase of difficulty in these games more or less simply increases the number of retries it takes to get through a given segment and can end up being more about memorizing enemy routes than anything else. By providing the player with superpowers that let's them mess with the natural order of things, Dishonored makes stealth easier in a welcome fashion.

2. Speaking of controlling the player...

One thing that I do not like about a lot of stealth games is that although they advertise freedom of choice, the game has built-in values that ineherently make certain choices more encouraged than others. Often the player is encouraged to not kill anyone and stay out of sight. The more the game emphasizes this, the less there is perceived freedom. Dishonored is by far one of the least offenders. The game does not give any in-game rewards for being a sneaky pacifist. In fact it only does one thing (in-game) to encourage the player to find peaceful solutions: the game's ending is affected by how many people the player kills. Not being detected is just gravy and makes it easier to not kill anyone. So it indeed does feel more like I actually could be killing people off should I so choose.

Although Dishonored fares quite well, this is often messed up in similar games. A lot of games offer greater in-game rewards for being stealthy which is practically saying that the player should do so. This is typically explained by the fact that stealthiness indeed is harder to do in these games, and therefore should be rewarded better. There is nothing wrong with this approach, mind you. Rewarding harder accomplishments is mostly a sound design policy. However it should then be recognized that this endorses certain ways to play and therefore effectively reduces the amount of perceived freedom in the game. For instance, a lot of people have complained about higher rewards for non-lethal methods in Human Revolution (even though there is practically no difference between a lethal and a non-lethal takedown; you just push a different button!)

It would actually make Dishonored even easier if the player chooses to kill everyone instead of passing by them, largely because of one ability which makes corpses vanish into thin air (cool). Still the game's difficulty is not drastically affected by the choice of approach. Yet one nasty controlling scheme does exist in the game: achievement system. A certain playing style (killing no one, never being seen) nets you most of the achievements in the game on one playthrough. I cannot underline how distressingly common this is for achievement systems in general: they endorse a single playing style. This hints the player that there actually does exist a "correct" way to play the game. How hard it would be to include achievements for other playing styles?

Sure, not everyone cares about achievements. But for those who do, it is important to be aware of the fact that achievements do control playing styles. For this reason I usually do not look at the list of achievements before completing the game. Although they do not contain spoilers, I know that they will definitely affect my playing style.

3. First or third?

One interesting innovation for a first person stealth game in Human Revolution was its "cover camera". When the player entered cover, the camera backed up to show the player hiding in third person. I still think this is absolutely brilliant because it removes any sort of guessing from hiding. Dishonored on the other hand stays in the first person. The character does crouch appropriately and so on and can lean out of cover (which can sometimes feel rather hilarious; it's like the upper half of your body is sticking out by no one sees you). The game does a fair job of convincing me that I am actually hidden so I do not take issue with this. I still think the system seen in Human Revolution is better though. Dishonored does have better stealth controls though.

Another thing - especially on consoles - is the first person tunnel vision. Stealth games in partciular are hurt by the lack of peripheral vision in games. It is very hard to take a quick glimpse of your surroundings with game pad controls, and even with mouse this does feel a bit wonky. Third person might feel less "realistic" (because you see your own back) but it does provide a much better feeling of peripheral vision. In Human Revolution you often want to get in cover just so you can see better. Which is a bit weird again but hey, these are games we're talking about. Still it might be true that first person does create greater immersion. I'm still not convinced that it should be preferred over third person in stealth games because peripheral vision is absolutely vital for survival.

First person stealth is still mostly okay. First person melee combat is another issue though. Every game that features excellent melee combat uses a third person camera. The problem with first person is the lack of body awareness. Not being able to exactly see your character's body makes it much harder to get a good read of the combat situation. In real life fencing, precise position awareness is key to successful offense, defense and counter attacks. Certain third person games like Dark Souls simulate this quite well precisely because the player can see the exact position of their character. It is easy to see which attacks will connect and which do not. In first person this is strictly harder because the player cannot know for certain where the character's body is physically located. It often tends to make things more boring too.

Another thing that often lacks from first person games regarding sword attacks is movement. It is very rare to attack without simultaenous forward movement but in first person games the player avatar rarely moves when attacks are made. It can be argued again that the player can of course choose to do so but moving and hitting is an entirely different matter than an actual sword attack with forward movement built into it. It's a small detail and of little consequence in Dishonored because combat is generally avoided. For a game like this, Assassin's Creed should be a suitable role model for combat mechanics. Of course, it would involve switching to third person.

4. But what makes it good

So far I have been largely using Dishonored as a vehicle to get into more general topics. There is not much in the above paragraphs to explain why this game is worth more than a few game of the year awards. One definite key strength of the game is that it succeeds in hiding the fact that it is a game. For instance, most of the time I did not feel like I was playing levels that threw challenges at me - I was merely navigating an environment. Situations did not feel like pre-arranged puzzles with several solutions. Instead they felt honestly open. There are some sections where the illusion breaks, but these are surprisingly few and nowhere the magnitude of, say, Human Revolution boss fights. Instead of levels, the developers have created a world that feels like it could actually exist.

There is a certain continuous logic throughout the game regarding how guards, civilians and plague victims are placed in the levels. Patrol routes make sense (at least to the extent that they still loop without variation). Places are never heavily guarded just to throw an obstacle to the player's way. Instead if they are heavily guarded, there is always something that is important in respect to the game world, not the game. All this supports the perception of freedom in the game because most approaches to a specific place for example are actually feasible. The player is allowed to use their eyes to see possibilities instead of being forced to search for hidden routes or discussing with NPCs to reveal new approaches. Whenever I traversed a route to my target I felt it was truly my own route. This is a powerful feeling.

Speaking of powerful feelings... superpowers! The thing about mystic superpowers is that you don't need to explain how they work, and they can do anything without feeling out of place. Sounds like a cheap shortcut and it kind of is but it works. Dishonored does not have many powers, but they all serve a purpose (admittedly, some more than others). The signature ability, Blink, is a short range teleport that has quite limitless potential. Moving around the open environments using Blink is one huge reason why the game feels so open-ended. The simple mechanism of getting from point A to B without being in any of the intermediary points is quite amazing. It opens up so many unpredictable routes that it is almost ridiculously overpowered. However the act of using it is just so delightful that the imbalance between powers did not even bother me.

There are other powerful tools. Seeing through walls has been done quite well. It is not overpowered, but highly useful. I did use it quite a bit, although of course not as much as Blink.Of the remaining powers, I did not even level up all of them, and used the animal / human possession once or twice during the entire playthrough. If you are into stuff like that, you can find a lot of use for this ability though. The remaining abilities seemed too combat-oriented for my playing style so I found no use for them. I might consider playing the game or at least some missions in a more violent manner just to see how the other side of the game system works.


Dishonored plays most of its cards really well. It is a stealth game that is actually not at all frustrating to play yet manages to stay interesting throughout its duration. It bears no significant design flaws really. Overall it is a game I believe anyone considering a stealth game should play. Overall anyone even remotely interested in the genre, or even just the game's theme, should play it. There is so much quality design to be enjoyed. Of all the games I have played recently (sandboxes don't count!), Dishonored has the highest amount of perceived freedom of choice by far. This is achieved in an almost counter-intuitive way by giving the player so powerful tools that they can effectively break the game. Another strong aspect that supports this perception is the way the game stays true to its internal logic. The game world quite simply feels like a world instead of a series of levels.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Borderlands 2

One interesting and sharp contrast between the video games industry and the film industry is that game sequels often surpass the originals. In the movie industry sequels are often obvious cash grabs but in the games industry it is more common for a sequel to raise rather high expectations. The reason for this is relatively straightforward to see: the first game is a risky gamble with a certain budget. Within the confines of a budget and a production time it is not possible to gather the sheer amount of player feedback that is gotten after the game's release. Furthermore if the original sells, the sequel is guaranteed to have a solid budget. Additionally since the concept has been proven, the sequel only needs to enhance it. It almost seems like a lot of games need that second iteration to really shine. Sometimes the second iteration is called "enhanced edition" but in the current market situation, more often than not it is called a "2".

Such is the case with Borderlands, a conceptually very sound and mostly importantly fun game that nevertheless had a bunch of gaping flaws. Uninteresting plot, repetitive scenery/quests and rather colorless character abilities were the three primary complaints about the game. Being a long game, even though it had four different characters, its replay value was quite low. At least for us single player types. Thankfully the game got a load of attention and a sequel was guaranteed. It was indeed one of those games where you could instantly see how much better it can become. Not least because of the DLC quality: 3 out of 4 DLC adventures were significantly better written than the game itself!

1. Goodbye generic side quests

For me this improvement is perhaps the one with the most impact. In the first game, side quests were dull. Your run-of-the-mill MMO stuff: farm or kill things with a an entirely irrelevant text description of why exactly this should be done. Almost none of the side quests in Borderlands 2 are collected from bounty boards and even the ones that are still involve NPC communication throughout the quest. Moreover, side quest assignments range from mildly weird to absurd. This combined with the well-written humorous dialogue during the quests makes most of them just as memorable as the main quest itself - if not more so! On the first play through the game side quests are not done just to obtain rewards - you actually want to experience them in all their wackiness.

The importance of meaningful side quests is often overlooked by game developers. The rationale probably goes something like "people who do side quests do them anyway" which to some extent is likely to be true. Quality does trump quantity here. Advertising that your game contains a thousand quests is a clear signal that these quests are going to be generated and repetitive in nature, done only for the sole purpose of obtaining the reward. Granted, sometimes there is the element of challenge involved too but that seems to be the rare exception. At worst, such games are mere skinner boxes where the player is pressing the lever repeatedly in hope of a reward. I highly prefer the Borderlands 2 way where some quests are rather lenghty and they are fewer in number, but they all form an experience that can actually be called content without feeling cheap.

Of course it takes resources to write quality quests. Each quest in Borderlands 2 has most likely required some effort from an actual writer, and of course from the quest designer. They didn't come out of a spreadsheet. The tough truth about resources and effort in regard to side quests is that if you don't have what it takes to do good ones, how about not doing them at all? Why spend any effort at all into making some ridiculous attempts to make the game longer when you could spend all your limited resources on the core game? Each quest should provide something to the player: real gameplay and/or content. By real gameplay I mean gameplay that is unique to this quest, something that makes the player feel they are actually doing something meaningful or challenging.

Borderlands 2 mostly provides meaning through dialogue content and that is fine. The actions that are taken during side quests are more or less the same stuff that the player keeps doing throughout the game: shoot and loot. That is what we came here for anyway. Another approach that I wholeheartedly approve is the opposite: no dialogue content, just challenge. Post-game dungeons and bosses fall under this category. The connecting factor is that both of these approaches provide meaning to the player. In the Borderlands 2 approach the meaning to the player is to enjoy the more or less insane ramblings of the eccentric NPC cast of the game. Although we may look at this additional story content as a reward for completing the side quest,  I would argue that it is more meaningful to the player to do the side quest because it grants the quest giver more personality.

I care a whole lot about NPC personality. Whether they are believable or not is of no particular consequence as long as it is entertaining to listen to their banter. Because I care, it is also more meaningful for me to complete an assignment for a character. Although them liking me for it is just a piece of code inside the game's logic, the effect persists. Even research shows that humans project a personality on products even when one is not desgined into it, so it is no wonder that products that do have built-in personality can affect emotions. Since the interpersonal context has been made meaningful, there is more motivation to complete the given quest. I could go on about the personality of video game characters for another blog post or two, but we've gotten quite sidetracked already. The conclusion of this rambling is that the side quests in Borderlands 2 are successful because they are written in a way that enhances the quest giver's personality.

2. Dem skill trees

A big issue in the first Borderlands was the inability of skill choices to affect gameplay. Most skills were merely simple buffs that gave a bonus percentage to something - usually damage with one weapon type or another.While this does have some consequence (primarly, which weapons to use) it doesn't really create different styles to play. The fact that skill tree choices do not have a huge effect on gameplay might be seen as positive in more action-oriented genres, but Borderlands has strong RPG roots. And in an RPG, the way you build your character is supposed to have a large impact on how you play the game. It is about creating a character that suits your own play style. If it is not possible to emphasize play style through skill selection, the character is bound to lack identity.

This is actually of particular consequence in more action-oriented games like Borderlands because player skill is a significant factor in choosing a play style. A player who is a great sniper is likely to be more successful with a skill build that emphasizes high, single shot, long range damage even if strictly mathematically a short range assault build would be better. Because the choice of optimal play style is affected by game-independent factors (player ability), there is less inclination towards the infamous cookie-cutter builds that are plaguing a lot of MMOs. Since there is an opportunity to create interesting skill choices even without a completely balanced skill tree, the developers of Borderlands should have felt obligated to do so. It is not a surprise then than one of the most anticipated changes promised for Borderlands 2 was an improved skill system.

On the surface the skill system looks alarmingly similar to its predecessor. Each character has one active special ability and three specialized skill trees which modify stats and the special ability. Again a lot of these skills are numerical increases to some aspect or another. Skill trees are divided into levels, and taking a total of 5 assignments in a tree opens up the next level. There are definitely more skills to choose from though. While there are no additional active skills, there are a whole lot of conditional skills, some of which stack. The important difference is that a lot of skills now do clearly affect play style and that they combo with each other. Another interesting aspect is that since the game is so action-heavy, skills often work differently in use than what they look like on paper. This would be horrible without respecs, so fortunately the game offers an inexpensive way to do so. Now it is actually interesting to experiment with different builds.

Dividing each character's skills into three specific trees is a good solution in at least one sense: for players who do not want to bother with experimenting, it is easy to see which tree to build for a certain play style. At the same time, a more adventurous gamer may find that their build can be improved by taking skills from two separate trees or even all of them. The only limitation is that such a diverse skill build cannot involve any skills very deep in the trees. This might be good for reducing the possibility of overpowered comboes, although during my playthroughs with two different characters I didn't really come up with any. Regardless, one tree is likely to by any build's primary tree which defines the core play style. There are basically 3 hard play styles for each character, creating a total of 12 options (15 with the DLC character). Most importantly, builds now really feel different to play.

3. Apply polish - lots of

The improvements are not huge but together they make for a much stronger game. However it doesn't stop there. Borderlands 2 also has its share of smaller improvements, most of which are tied to giving the game more distinguished character. One of the best ideas is to give different equipment manufacturers their own identity and manufacturer ability. This guarantees that weapons in the game behave in a wider variety of ways than they would with just randomly generated stats. It is different from unique special abilities because after trying one weapon from a manufacturer the player can project how different guns from that manufacturer would be like.Ultimately it is still the hard numbers that define which weapons to use but in case of somewhat equal stats, weapon manufacturer can be a large factor in decision-making.

Another thing I liked is that there is now a lot more variation for what special abilities shields can have. The decision of which shield to choose now has more factors then its sheer stopping power. Many shields have offensive qualities which can be used to counterbalance their weaker protection. The addition of more variation also extends to enemies. On a less game mechanical note, environments are also way more varied. No more endless wasteland; we have snow fields, grass, industrial complexes and towns. Finally, the game has been finished with a lot of care paid to the details. Everything is consistent with the game's slightly disturbed character. This shows in more or less everything, loading screen tips included. Simply put, the entire package is very charming.

The game also has increased challenge built into it in the form of a new game+ and a "raid boss" which I have yet to defeat. The first DLC brought another similar challenge. I'm looking forward to killing them all at some point. Another strong point is the improved co-op play that has been made quite effortless and better supports players who are at different stages of the game.


Borderlands 2 is a prime example of a second iteration that really brings an already functional concept to blossom. It addresses all the flaws of its predecessor in an agreeable manner. It also goes beyond, with more effort put into writing in particular. While predictable, the main plot is enjoyable to follow and, as noted, the side quests have been superbly written. All the strengths of the original have been retained and really the only thing I missed was Lilith's phasewalk ability. Another "problem" with the game is that getting to know all characters does take a lot of time. I have yet to manage this feat but I got a strong feeling that I am not yet done with this game.