Friday, March 22, 2013

inFamous 2

This game has been sitting in my collection for some time. Mostly because there were more urgent games to play. I did like many aspects of the first inFamous. Most importantly the game was very enjoyable to play. I realized that I haven't actually written about inFamous yet (I played it way before starting this blog) so I will touch it a bit as I go.What I remember of it anyway. In short, inFamous 2 is a direct sequel which in video game terms often means "improved version of the first" and I have to say that this is mostly true - again.

1. Being an electric man

Much of the strength of inFamous comes from factors that are very similar to Assassin's Creed. It allows the player to feel how it is like to be a superhero. This is achieved through efficient controls and design of powers that are simple to use yet highly impressive. Curiously the greatest feeling of power in inFamous is not how easily the player can defeat enemies but the various methods that allow them to travel across the city rapidly. It is a game where movement has been made highly enjoyable. Indeed out of somewhat similar games, only Mirror's Edge clearly surpasses inFamous whereas games like Assassin's Creed fall behind. Of course the comparison is a bit unfair - the protagonist Cole McGrath has a handful of movement-related superpowers after all. The biggest mistake in the original game was to give out these powers quite slowly. In inFamous 2, Cole starts with all movement powers from the first game.

He does get even more powerful movement abilities towards the end of the game though. In addition to being able to float in the air and "grind" (move very quickly, like on rails) on electric wires, by the end Cole can launch himself high into the air and use a lightning-themed grappling hook. I actually have no idea how one would do this stuff with electricty (the launch is ice-based though) but it doesn't really matter. What matters is how effectively the player can guide Cole through the city. In a sense it is these feats of movement that truly make Cole feel like a superhero. This is partly due to the surprisingly unimaginative design of combat powers. My biggest issue with the first game was that most of Cole's combat powers worked exactly like firearms. You have your pistol-like basic projectiles, electric grenades and electric rockets (with or without guidance).

inFamous 2 is not much better in this respect. New combat powers are mostly variations of old ones and while they are satisfying to use (especially the redirect rockets) they don't convey the feeling of electricity as well as they could. Sure, electricity courses through steel fences and instantly kills enemies standing in water but that is more or less all there is to it. Although combat powers themselves are perhaps the weakest link in this "electric man simulation", fueling them again enhances the experience; Cole gains his energy and health back by draining it out of nearby electric devices and power sources. This means that the game has an abundance of recovery available. More on this in the next section.I really don't know how electricty-based powers should work, but I'd imagine they would be quite a bit less controllable than firearms.

2. Combat pacing and healing

One interesting topic about game design is how healing affects the overall experience of combat in the game. In the past most games were exercises of sparing limited healing resources and this created a certain suspense but also caused some frustrating save/load sessions. The modern approach on the other hand is to allow players to regain health by simply resting for a while. This approach makes damage less permanent. Neither approach is very realistic, but that is the way of getting damage in combat. The tabletop RPG Hunter: The Reckoning makes a valid point: if a character actually gets injured from a weapon, they often spend weeks or months in the hospital bed. In a tabletop roleplaying game this can be made to work, but obviously it is not very desirable in action packed video games.

This means that once again we can disregard realism. Realism is overrated anyway. Both approaches have their uses, and indeed both are still present in modern games - the resting approach is just much more common. The issue with that approach is that it leaves out the suspense element entirely. It is simply not possible to use limited access to healing as a game design element because healing is ubiquitously available to the player. In inFamous, healing is abundant but not ubiquitous. The city is usually full of sources of electricity - often healing is just around the corner or even already in sight. Indeed, if the player has upgraded Cole's drain speed, he can become almost invulnerable if connected to an infinite power source. Infinite power sources are only available in a few specific missions. However this does mean that Cole can actually heal under gunfire.

Searching for power sources is usually not a desperate effort but rather like pit-stopping during a fight. Just a quick drain and off again. To counterbalance the abundance of healing, Cole actually takes quite a bit of damage from enemies. Staying in open space for too long is quite deadly. This means that the player's health changes very rapidly; taking damage is fast and so is healing. This also translates into how combat flows in the game. When combined with all the movement-related powers, the combat experience is one where the player changes position constantly - hiding to quickly recharge, and popping up from an unexpected direction to unleash a burst of electricity. Cole can easily take out a bunch of enemies quickly if they haven't spread out - but if they have, the player has to switch positions rapidly.

The system works fairly well because no one has a lot of health. At least not in the beginning. The game drops the ball a bit towards the end when it introduces rank-and-file enemies that can take way too much punishment before they drop. The game doesn't really need this either - the increase in difficulty could have been achieved by increasing numbers, or using nastier enemy positioning.


At its base, inFamous 2 is a fairly typical modern game. It uses a lot of the same tropes that are becoming ubiquitous and adds its own twists. Where the game succeeds is in creating the superhero experience for the player. Superpowers in the game are enjoyable to use, although some of them are rather unimaginative re-themings of familiar concepts. As a sequel it is a pretty straightforward iteration in the sense that it has more refined game mechanics. While better as a game, I felt that storywise it was rather lacking. The first game had an interesting story - the sequel really can't keep up to any expectations. I also found the npc role reversal in the final mission of the game a bit cheap. A very minor spoiler here: the bad npc is your ally in the good final mission while the good npc is your ally in the evil version. It felt a bit like they wanted to do a twist so badly, but they really couldn't come up with anything even remotely credible.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Xenoblade Chronicles

For a JRPG buff there are a lot of reasons to be interested in Xenoblade Chronicles, especially since it's been a while since its release. First and foremost, it has the magical Xeno prefix put there to pay homage to the other Xeno-games: Xenogears and Xenosaga. It has been created by Monolith Studios, who also created Xenosaga and (some of them) were involved in the creation of Xenogears. The reason this prefix carries so much weight is that as far as game plots go, both gears and saga are among the most complex. Particularly Xenosaga, which was originaly planned to run for seven episodes in total. Unfortunately it was cut down to three and it shows quite a bit. The third and final episode does tie together the main plot but leaves a lot of unfinished or hastily finished business in its wake.

Second, Xenoblade promised to honor JRPG traditions - the game has a large world and lots and lots of things to do. It also has epic length as I very recently discovered. Finally, the game has had a massively positive response in both reviews and among the gaming community. The biggest reason that was holding me back from playing it was honestly its platform: the Nintendo Wii. Let me just say that Wii is possibly the biggest disservice to the entire industry ever and a joke at best as a gaming system. Having seen how poorly The Last Story performed on the system I was not very enthusiastic towards experiencing Xenoblade Chronicles. Now that I have laid the game down, I will have to immediately say that this game is not worth all the hype. I will however have to admit that it was, in the end, a good JRPG despite its very slow start.

1. Timescale balance

The first topic therefore is what I think is actually quite a common issue in JRPGs in general: they are almost always more interesting after a good many hours into the game. Not always, but often - usually when this is not true, it is because the latter half of the game is botched horribly. What I mean to say is, these games have a tendency to start slow both story and game mechanics wise. Often the very beginning is actually quite fast storywise because something needs to happen to get things going. After this a lot of games start to falter a bit. Either they fail to introduce anything thrilling for quite a while because the characters are resolving the initial issue (which often is not the really interesting part of the plot - interesting twists later in the story are a norm in this genre).

This is what happens with Xenoblade too. The first half of the game is basically spent traveling from point A to B, through a cavalcade of points in between. For me it simply failed to inspire the sense of an epic journey - something Final Fantasy X did for me - which meant it was literally just a series of new places and rather lame subplots. Perhaps the biggest failing plotwise in Xenoblade was however that for the entire first half of the game you could easily guess what the plot twist would be after the destination was finally reached (it is the same twist I referred to in the earlier post about women in games). In a way it just fails to give the player anything to chew on. One of the major advantages of Xenosaga in particular was that it had the player going "wtf" from almost the beginning. Actually the saga's plot is so complex that the player might still be all "wtf" by the end of it but hey, that's another topic entirely. I like the sense that something bigger is clearly going on.

Another, once again rather common problem in all games that have some kind of character development, is that in the beginning the player has very limited options and therefore mechanics can become really boring. This happens in Xenoblade on massive scale - partly because I think there are some flaws in its combat design - in such a way that the game is not exactly the most thrilling to play for the first twenty or so hours either. Quite honestly if I had made this analysis halfway into the game, you would be reading some serious bashing. At this point I actually was of the opinion that the game is utter crap and massively overhyped. A word of warning: if you want to like this game, be patient enough to actually get to the likeable parts. Unless you like the design which I believe a lot of people do, because it is reminescent of another JRPG title that reviewers liked and I find outrageous.

The bottom line is, way too often JRPGs fail to truly spark any interest in the player for the first few hours - this is strangely forgiven by the time players get to the good parts. However if we stop to consider, some of the worst offenders are not particularly good before the player has put in enough time to have beaten most games in any other genre. That is not good design and it is no wonder the genre is no more massively popular. It also outrageously common to have a certain plotline in the game that requires the player to rummage through several dungeons or other places while nothing really happens to move the game forward. "Now we are prepared to face the villain... almost. We just need you to get four pieces of this ancient relic from opposite corners of the world." that kind of thing. Meanwhile, absolutely nothing happens.

2. The single player MMORPG syndrome

This is what links Xenoblade to one of my least favourite JRPGs I have played: Final Fantasy XII. This syndrome is exactly what the name suggests: the game borrows its tropes and mechanics heavily from massively multiplayer online games and tries to make them work in a single player experience. The problem of course is that they just fail miserably. The gameplay mechanics of MMORPGs are - on average - frigging boring, especially in the beginning when there are very few abilities to use. My guess is that they have been optimized for playing with latency and in general to be playable by people who are not so great with their keyboard+mouse-fu. In case you have somehow missed the World of Warcraft school of fantasy combat, it is built around abilities with cooldowns and aggro mechanics.

We will get to the combat in a sec, but first let's talk about another trope that is ubiquitous in MMORPGs: quests. Lots and lots of quests. So it is in Xenoblade; the amount of quests in this game is simply overwhelming. When there are so many quests, it is immediately clear that almost all of them will be of the simple variety: collect items or kill monsters. As if it wasn't enough to have a massive amount of quests, the game also has one annoying aspect: quests are given by people, and in some clumsy attempt to appear more realistic, the people are not always available. Instead some people are only available during certain hours, sometimes only in certain weather. I could maybe understand people missing from the streets at night but making it also dependent on the exact time of the day is just really frustrating. I was already flooded with quests so this didn't bother me that much, except when I tried to turn in some quests and the recipients were not around.

The game does feature the ability to at least fast-forward the game clock. Still this is just not the way to do things. The game also gives horribly little information about the quests - like for instance what god forsaken hours the quest recipient would be as kind to be available. This is one thing I have always hated about JRPGs: some stuff is hidden in such irrational ways that the only sensible way to go about finding it is using a guide. Usually side quests are particular to the area where you get them, but when they are not, the game sure as hell doesn't bother to give information about where it would be possible to find the required items. The world is very large, and each area contains a huge amount of different enemies, so trying to find things is a massive time sink. Which I ultimately opted not to do.

As stated, the battle system in the game is very MMORPG-inspired. Simplified yes, and somewhat conforming to JRPG tropes, but MMORPG nonetheless. The player controls one character while two other party members are AI-controlled. Characters attack automatically when close enough to a target. They can also use abilities called arts, each of which has its cooldown time. Positioning matters but only slightly: attacking from behind or sides affects how some arts work. Another thing that matters is aggro, which is used to determine who the enemies will be targeting. It's not a bad system, but it is kind of boring. There is not that much strategy involved because the effect times of most abilities are way shorter than their cooldowns. The best single mechanic is the break-topple-daze system that allows enemies to be disabled for a while and take more damage.

The single player MMORPG syndrome is not a collection of aspects, but rather a general feeling. In Xenoblade it is very strong, and I think it is a bit lazy design. The biggest problem with the syndrome is that it is definitely not the combat mechanics that keep people playing MMORPGs. It is mostly the MMO and for some players the RP. The design of the G is actually not that exciting - at least not the combat part. I do know that in some MMORPGs the combat design is actually more exciting (e.g. Guild Wars, Tera) but the basic form seen in World of Warcraft is effing boring. It likely gets better later in the game as it eventually does in Xenoblade. However, over 20 hours is a long time for combat to be not that interesting.

3. Conservative RPG design

The real problem with combat in Xenoblade is not its similarity to MMORPG style but rather all the character development aspects that affect it. Xenoblade has a very conservative character development scheme in which advancement is carefully tied to plot progress. Higher levels in arts become available only when the player discovers manuals. Equipment is gradually upgraded in every area. Even the game's built-in crafting system puts limitations on how high leveled gems the player can produce at a given stage in the game due to the availability of materials. The problem with being so conservative is in the fact that it makes half of the things kind of redundant. The game does not really need scaling equipment because their scaling speed is about the same as character level advancement. This is something I have always had trouble understanding: if equipment is just better numbers, why have equipment in the first place.

Granted, there are pieces of equipment that have fixed games attached to them, which gives them special abilities that are usually slightly better than what is possible to produce at that time using slotted inventory and crafted gems. The gem system is mostly fine, although the crafting itself has unnecessary complexity. I found myself using the same two characters to produce every single gem during my game, and was more than happy with the results. The system probably has more to give but I didn't see any way to "jump ahead of the curve" - so to speak. The choices that really matter are which arts to equip and level up, and which gems to equip in slotted equipment. Skill trees are very simple, and the skills themselves are quite conservative in how much they affect the game.

It is not as bad as, say, The Last Story, but I still felt that my control over how my party fought was not the same level as I would have liked it to be. It is true that Xeno games in general have never been outstanding in this sense, but I do feel that some of the Xenosaga episodes did have more strategical options available. As far as options are concerned there is one factor that I found especially weird: practical party compositions are actually pretty limited. It is good that characters have different strengths and in Xenoblade every character has a quite distinct role. However there are two or three cases where this is simply taken too far: only one character can cast a shield against enemy talent arts; only one character can deal serious magic damage; and only one character is good enough at healing to actually have an impact.

The first and second are borderline fine, because there are not that many enemies where you would require their expertise, but the last one is really horrible. The way the game is designed, there tends to be only one way to fight: the slugfest - outlast your enemies. This topic was earlier discussed in this blog and I concluded that games where the slugfest is the only option are rather weak. In slugfests, when fights get prolonged, it is simply impossible to last very long without a healer. This makes that one character a requirement for any serious fights and with a party consisting of three characters, that only leaves two choices for the player. Granted, getting through bread and butter combat can be done without a healer but for every boss encounter you will need this character. There simply is no other way to reduce incoming damage.

Another problem with this whole conservative approach is that the player simply doesn't get the feeling of being in control in fights. There is simply not enough agency. There are some systems in the game that do increase the sense of agency - they will be discussed shortly. Nevertheless the sense of being in control is simply quite diminished. Although you control a character in real time, there is only so much you can do because none of the arts have really drastic effects. The designers have simply done too good a job of making sure the game is in balance - the result is overbalanced. Although the characters are different, the fighting experience is alarmingly similar with every party composition. The only exception is whether you have a healer or not. Controlling other characters yourself also gives a distinct experience, but the overall strategies remain the same.

Xenoblade does get more interesting around the 30 hour mark but it still is simply not as interesting as many other JRPGs that give a better sense of agency. That, and the mechanic itself is not that satisfying to play, largely due to its MMORPG influences. In lot of JRPGs tactical variance is in fact quite low, but usually the tactics are more satisfying to carry out. Often this is linked to how well skills combo with each other. This is another thing that Xenoblade does not do as much as I could have hoped. Monolith Studios does know how to build more intriguing skill systems into a game as was evidenced by Xenosaga 2 and 3 - they have just chosen not to do so.

4. One meter to rule them all

One central mechanic that the game itself somewhat underemphasizes is the party meter. At first I thought it was a bad idea but once I figured how to manipulate it better the game actually became quite a bit more enjoyable. The meter is more or less the lifeblood of your party because it does a variety of things. The meter has three segments, and most things cost one segment. The things you can do with it are: revive an ally; get revived by an ally (if there are no segments left, you lose the battle when the main character falls); warn an ally about an incoming art (see below); perform a tri-attack which uses all three segments. The fact that you need the same bar for both the combo attack and revival made little sense at first because it made combo attacks very suicidal to perform (lose 3 revives/warnings for a combo? No thanks!).

The warning system is noteworthy. Whenever an enemy art would incapacitate or put a character on very low HP or disable them severely, the player is given a foresight of the incoming attack and (usually) 8 seconds to react (12 if it is a talent art). If the player chooses to warn another party member, they can instantly cast one art with the warned character out of normal sequence. Most importantly, even abilities that are on cooldown can be cast, and casting arts from warning doesn't put them on cooldown. So, basically it is a free cast whenever something bad is about to happen. The player can actually warn both allies for the price of two segments. The system is in no way limited to defensive abilities, it can also be used to get a quick powerful attack in hope that it will kill the enemy. It can even be used to activate buffs that are on cooldown.

It is still slightly unclear to me what factors are involved in raising the meter. Three things raise it: critical hits, triggering special effects of some arts and seemingly random affinity moments. The last is a bit unclear because I did not experience anything that controlled when you get the affinity opportunities in battles. The first two are something that the player can actually build a strategy around by using characters with easy access to high critical chance or arts that have easy-to-trigger special effects and low cooldowns. These things allow the use of tri-attacks actually quite frequently. Furthermore, tri-attacks are usually used to cause a break-topple-dazzle combo which incapacitates an enemy for a moment. The daze can also be refreshed when it wears off (the window is quite short) which means you can follow a tri-attack combo with prolonged knockdown.

My basic setup was often able to fill two segments of an empty party meter during this period of daze. This allowed almost non-stop tri-attacks. Some enemies are immune to it though, because they are immune to break. Some enemies also have a defensive mechanism that makes them return a ton of damage when they are attacked while toppled. This effect can be removed temporarily, but only by one character in the entire game. The tactic is somewhat reminescent of Persona 3 Fes where it was possible to keep an enemy in an infinite knockdown loop but better in the sense that the loop cannot be infinite (I think, I haven't tried too hard). The fact that it doesn't always work also makes other tactics useful. Tri-attacks on the other hand are not very useful if they cannot be used to cause a daze, largely because without that temporary lockdown the player will be left entirely without party meter segments for a while.

Especially towards the end of the game, the party meter played a central role in tougher battles. The battle was then more about keeping the meter high, especially because of the warning system that allowed instant free heals for the whole party whenever someone was about to die. The warning system actually has a strong familiriaty to it - it reminds me of the boost system that was used in Xenosaga. It allowed characters to skip ahead in turn order and enabled both reactive plays and ability combinations to be carried out effectively. I am quite fond of systems like this one that allow the player to mess with the normal turn order. Although Xenoblade doesn't use turns what with being real-time and all, the warning system allows the player to ignore ability cooldowns.

5. World exploration

After playing the game I kind of know why it is held in high regard by many. Undeniably the world is interesting. Civilizations existing on top of two dead titans is a concept you don't see every day. Most importantly, this shows in the game. Look up and somewhere in the distance you can see a motionless metallic face. Environments are quite varied, especially on the starting titan. Most importantly, the local fauna on each area is credible. Enemies of very high levels can be found among the normal residents which makes it feels less like everything has been put there for the player. A similar choice was made in the largest area in Final Fantasy XIII. Like in FFXIII, monsters are visible to the player and can be avoided. Battle also takes place on the world map itself, like in FFXII, and prolonged battles can sometimes be joined by wandering monsters.

Enemies are divided into four categories based on how they get aggressive towards the player. The first category never does, they just exist and will only fight if attacked first; the second uses sight to detect the party; the third uses hearing (shorter range, but 360 degree detection); and the last type is drawn to magic being cast. Because the enemies can flock to battles that have already started, some consideration is required from the player before starting to fight. I have a divided opinion of this system - I find it fine when enemy patrol routes are not too long and it is somewhat predictable when more will join the fight. However in some areas there are flying monsters with monstrous patrol ranges that can just pop into a fight. I did find a rather silly way to deal with battles with too many monsters: hit and run.

Battles end when the player runs far enough, and characters recover their hit points very quickly outside of combat. Monsters also recover their health, but dead ones stay dead for quite a long time. Therefore it is possible to run in, kill one enemy and run away to heal. Rinse and repeat. Reminds me of the very old times with dungeon crawling games like Eye of the Beholder where you could literally run in, hit, and quickly run back (one step) to make any retaliation miss. In Xenoblade this strategy is brought about because escaping is quite easy, especially when all three characters are still alive. Once aggro is off the main character, the player can just run out of combat with no risk at all. Bursting down weaker enemies one by one in this way is an effective tactic but I did find it to be rather tedious. Fortunately it was not needed very often.

Unfortunately, besides monsters there is not much in the world to discover. Collectables are scattered here and there randomly (they also respawn randomly) but the only thing that truly drives the player to explore is the scenery. I have to say that I was quite positively suprised by the game's drawing distance. This made the scenery actually look quite impressive, despite the Wii's lack of visual processing power.


Ultimately the biggest issue I had with Xenoblade Chronicles was that it took so long for the game to truly get started. The first 20 to 30 hours simply were not up to the hype because nothing interesting was going on in the story and battle mechanics were not particularly varied yet. Once the game finally upped the stakes by a few notches I found it to be a solid JRPG. However it wasn't particularly spectacular at any point. Most aspects of the game are "only" good. Characters, plot, mechanics... none were really spectacular. Oh and why is that if there is a silly looking race in the game, they have to behave like idiots too? I can understand why a lot of people liked this game. After all, a lot of people also liked FFXII - which is possibly the worst JRPG I have ever played - and Xenoblade does have a lot of similarities.

Curiously enough, the fact that this game was for Wii did not bother me much at all. After the framerate nightmare of The Last Story I was prepared for much worse, but in fact most of the time Xenoblade ran just fine. It is possible that I would have liked this game more in the past. Now it suffered from rather high expectations and simply did not live up to them. The plot was nowhere near the complexity of other Xeno titles. Characters and dialogue were pretty standard stock, and I found voice acting - both English and Japanese - to be really tired. It was not quite as bad as The Last Story, but quite close. I guess the low budget of Wii development carries over to other aspects of the game too. The seriousness of the plot was also hurt by the fact that armor changed character appearance and at some point in the game the best armor - for a really long time too - was practically underwear.

Xenoblade did in many ways resemble JRPGs of the old times. It is just that it retained some things that could have been left into the past, but most importantly I think most of the modernizations were misses. This trend of likening single player RPGs to MMORPGs is a bad direction to head into. Sadly it is quite prevalent. Stop the madness and start making good single player games dammit.

Monday, March 4, 2013

On Video Game Dresses and Unnecessary Boobs

This article contains at least one spoiler (Xenoblade Chronicles). Just so you know. The twist is pretty damn predictable though after not-so-many hours into the game.

Lately I have encountered a lot of talk about how women are represented in video games. The topic itself is hardly new - after all women have been represented in video games rather poorly since the dawn of history. My stance? I definitely agree that there are severe problems in this area. I don't fully agree with all the criticism towards games, largely because to me it seems some feminists are seeing enemies absolutely everywhere and - spoken as a male - their attitude can be rather hostile. Then again, the gaming community's common reactions are even more hostile. I'm not here to argue this issue though - I'm more interested in design implications. What we're gonna look at is how the poor visual design of female characters can be quite harmful to a game's enjoyability.

This is KOS-MOS. She is a battle android from Xenosaga - which you might have guessed by looking at the big-ass guns she's packing. She is also packing something else: big boobs. What exactly is their purpose in the design, do they deflect bullets better because of the round surface or what? Also note the skin-to-armor ratio. Okay so she was built by a big nerd, which explains why she is female in the first place (there is no in-game explanation as far as I recall, and she doesn't pass as a human in any scene) - although said nerd had a girlfriend who was actually working with him on the project. Actually - this part is a bit hazy I'll admit - but the girlfriend (actual protagonist of Xenosaga) must have been the one to upgrade KOS-MOS frame into this:

So I am guessing maybe she did the original design too. To get to the point: there is no in-game reason for KOS-MOS to look like this. Sure there is no in-game reason for her to not look like this either, but the design doesn't make much sense. This didn't actually bother me while playing the game - you watch enough Japanese anime and come to accept this as the norm. KOS-MOS is also an interesting character and forms a solid duo with the series - also female - protagonist. Both are actually what I think passes as quite good female character design in terms of writing. In KOS-MOS's case, she remains a good character despite having an overly (and unnecessarily) sexualized body. Maybe it is easier to ignore because she doesn't really care either - there is no sense of sexuality in her programming.

This is also why I am not particularly bothered by what girls in fighting games are wearing. They have no personality at all; they are practically just dolls that fight for their master (you, the player). They make no effort to even pass as women so they don't really portray any kind of image about women. This is why I think it's wasted effort to get offended by the way they dress - it is much akin to being offended by porn. That effort is better spent on criticizing characters that actually try to pass as women - characters with actual personality. Characters that suggest that an actual woman might wear something as ridiculous as we often see in games - even when the dress is in direct conflict with their personality. KOS-MOS looks ridiculous, yes, but the way she looks doesn't draw attention away from her role in the game. Let's talk about someone who doesn't enjoy such a benefit.

I find it somewhat uncomfortable to say out loud that Tifa is my favorite character in Final Fantasy VII. What people remember first about Tifa is her boobs. Let's face it - it is rather hard to not pay attention to them because they're just ginormous (more so in the game than above!). The realism card usually flies right out of the window when discussing games, but seriously, if you've seen actual athletic people you know there is no way she can have boobs that big. It's gotta be the mako energy. Useful stuff for powering reactors, creating power-granting materia and I guess concentrating all of your body fat into boobs. Of course her cloth-to-skin ratio is below 0.5 to boot. What makes Tifa far more offensive than KOS-MOS is the fact that the writers have actually spent a great deal of effort to create a quite realistic girl with strong character.

Tifa is in my opinion a much stronger character design than Aerith (although Aerith's personality does get some curious implications when we get to look at her past in Crisis Core). The problem is, this is often lost because people mostly associate Tifa with huge boobs. So it's not just that her appearance is both unrealistic and offensive, it also very successfully obfuscates the marvelous job done by the script writer responsible for her personality. Whoever did the visual design for Tifa clearly did a huge disservice to the rest of the game. Unfortunately, "unnecessarily big boobs" is a rather common syndrome in games (from top to bottom: Lara Croft (Tomb Raider Underworld), Selvaria Bles (Valkyria Chronicles), Beatrix (Final Fantasy IX)):

Dress design can also have rather large impact on how seriously a game can be taken. It is actually Xenoblade Chronicles that gave me the spark to write this piece. The game features armor that actually changes the character model (this is rare in Japanese RPGs so it's noteworthy). The game does this actually quite well - it even remembers what pieces of equipment characters were wearing when it shows flashbacks from earlier (or it fakes very convincingly). However because it is stats that dictates what equipment is worn, the combinations can look rather awkward. Which would also be fine and expected, but some pieces are in fact rather humiliating. It is rather difficult to get into the right mood when two characters are having a meaningful conversation while the other is in what looks like underwear and the other with a torso like this (couldn't find a full pic - it looks worse in-game):

Mind you, Fiora is not an android void of human personality - she's a cyborg. Moreover, when asked about how she feels in her new robotic body she keeps convincing everyone that she really feels comfortable with it. We are talking about a sexually inexperienced young girl (she has her first kiss during the game), who apparently is very comfortable with baring a major part of her breasts and some of her buttcrack to the world (the latter spotted during a camera drive while she was in that outfit). What is up with her breasts anyway? Did they purposefully upgrade them to practically point upward? Puts a whole new meaning on the word firmware. She actually has at least semi-decent outfits and now I kinda see another reason why a lot of games that have alternative character models still use the default models for cutscenes. If for instance Xenosaga II had shown its swimsuit models outside of combat I would have found it very hard to take the game seriously. Here is Fiora's default btw:

So whether you care about how women are portrayed in games or not (you should though!), there are other reasons to not let male fantasies dictate costume design. These reasons affect the gaming experience as a whole. The designers of KOS-MOS got away with her sexualized appearance, but others like those responsible for Tifa or Fiora certainly do not. I get the desire to create hot characters - attractive characters get a game more attention whether we like it or not. I also get why there are fighting sex dolls in fighter games - although they give gaming a bad image they don't really do any harm to the game. So I say let them have their softcore porn. This kind of design just should not crawl into games with actual characters. Tasteful can just as well be hot - perhaps even more so than tasteless.

It was refreshing to read the Persona 4 Official Design Works. The artist interviewed for the book emphasizes how much effort they put into matching each character's appearance to their personality - and vice versa! Of course there is no need to emphasize this, the advantage is obvious from just playing the game. With good synergy of visual design and script writing, the game succeeds in having some of the most convincing girl characters in its genre - even across genres really. Since we started with a robot girl, and they have been an ongoing theme, I want to throw you one more because Persona 3 shows much more taste. Although it is not clearly stated why she is a girl, storywise she needs to pass as human which explains all her anthromorphic features (i.e. breasts).

The Persona example, conveniently from the same genre as the rest, goes to show that by putting emphasis on plausible visual design the end results are simply better. Getting away with sleazy design is not exactly something to be proud of. Yet it seems that developers try to do it all the time. If overtly sexualized characters ever end up on lists like "best female characters" know that they are there despite their ridiculous appearance. Hell, even on "hottest female characters" lists they could rate higher with more tasteful clothes. So as a closing shot, here is Karin - she would probably love to have more decent clothes.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Dota 2 in Depth: Drafting

Since I still haven't managed to complete any new games (Xenoblade is rather lenghty!), I want to write more about Dota 2. For my topic I have chosen different drafting (hero selection) modes that are currently available in the game. I have chosen this topic primarily because hero drafting is one of the most entertaining phases of the game to watch. The irony here being that not much happens on-screen during drafting. Nevertheless, it was indeed drafting that sparked my interest in Dota. The most interesting drafting mode by far is the one that is used in tournaments, Captains Mode. A couple of other modes are however noteworthy as well.

1. Captains Mode

This mode is the de facto tournament mode in MOBAs in general. The drafting is divided into four phases: first bans, first picks, second bans and second picks. The name of the mode comes from the fact that it is the team captain that does all hero bans and picks for their team. In the first phase, a total of four heroes are banned. This banning phase could be called a balancing act in a sense because usually the heroes that are currently considered most useful get banned. These bans tend to give away very little information, and they are fairly standard. There is typically a pool of less than ten heroes that get banned in this stage. These bans are therefore the most dependent on the contemporary meta game. Some additional information does go into this process though: match history. Knowing what heroes the enemy team is particularly strong with generally allows a captain to make the most out of their first bans.

This first ban phase is interesting because it can give off the impression that the game is imbalanced in the sense that some heroes are simply better than others. This does ring true but one thing to consider here is what we discussed last time. Sometimes the meta game shifts because of balance patches that buff some heroes and nerf others, but they also shift simply because teams come up with new ways to use heroes. Besides, banning four heroes out of the pool does have one huge advantage: it prevents the game from becoming too repetitive. From the captain's point of view, the first bans also ask a very important question: "which two heroes we are the least prepared to deal with?" Answering this question does require some general idea of what kind of strategy the team is prepared to go for. The team that picks first also has an advantage here because they can leave two nasty heroes into the pool and force the opposing team to give them one of those heroes while banning the other.

After four heroes have been ejected from the pool, teams pick their first three heroes. The process has four steps: 1) the first team picks a hero; 2) the opposing team picks two heroes; 3) the first team picks two heroes; and 4) the opposing team picks a hero. This is the phase where teams generally pick heroes that afford a wide variety of strategies because giving away too much information at this point can be disastrous. Just like first bans, these first picks are fairly standard in competitive play. It can be tricky to not give away too much information here, because after these picks, three out of five heroes in a team have been picked. The last picks in this phase tend to be more interesting than the first ones. This is where teams have to start playing some of their cards and they also have more information. There are a lot of things to consider here. There's generally 5 roles in a team, and although some heroes can comfortable fit into more than one, this is often where three roles will be filled.

That is why the second ban phase is much more context sensitive than the first one. Both teams get to ban three more heroes and the goal of the captains here is to get rid of heroes that would be the best fit for the opposing team's lineup. This asks for quite a bit of strategy sense because now is the time where a captain really needs to have a very solid idea of what kind of strategies both teams are going for. This in turn requires pretty deep understanding of every single hero in the game. Although a lot of the same heroes do show up in matches, some really wild picks have been also witnessed in tournament games. The three bans are what make this possible: the most obvious best choices are gone, so a captain has to fill their last two slots with heroes that are not the most optimal choices. This is interesting design because taking away heroes from the pool actually makes the effective pool larger.

By the time teams get to the last picking phase, a total of 16 heroes have left the pool due to being banned or picked. The last picks are done in 1-2-1-2 order, and here the team that picks last has the advantage, counterbalancing the first picker advantage from earlier. In a sense they can counter both of the first team's last picks because the last two picks need to fill different roles. The countering ability of the first team is weaker because their very last pick needs to both fulfill a role and at the same time counter the previous pick (if necessary). Of course, the very last pick of the second team cannot be countered at all. This makes it the only pick in the entire process that is done with complete information available to the picker. If you have played any decent strategy games, the advantage given by complete information in decision making should be pretty obvious.

In a way the captains mode might have risen out of necessity. It is simply not possible to completely balance a game like Dota 2 without making it dull. The captains mode is a clever design that prevents the game from becoming too stagnant. Bans force captains to look for unexpected solutions, and this way the meta game slowly changes. I think there is something more interesting going on here though. I think that Dota 2 is so interesting because of its imbalance. The captains mode is not a monkey patch to fix an imbalanced game - it's a mode that capitalizes on the imbalance as an advantage. The myriad of ways heroes interact with each other makes the hero pool a highly interconnected structure. Taking out even a single hero from the pool can massively impact the usefulness of another hero. Therefore, although the total number of bans sounds quite small, their impact on strategy is huge.

2. Random Draft

This mode is the other mode that can be considered almost tournament worthy. Like captains mode, this one also reduces the hero pool size, forcing teams to pick alternate solutions. As a measure, random draft is far more drastic: only 22 heroes from the entire game are made available. This limitation is naturally even better at preventing stagnancy. The biggest reason this mode is not used in tournaments is its random nature. The draft can be rather lopsided, sometimes giving a huge advantage to the team that gets the first pick. This is especially true if there is only one good hero for one role in the entire selection. What this mode is good for however is playing with random internet strangers. Captains mode is tricky because one player makes all the decisions and poor communication can lead to very disastrous picks (such as four heroes that no one knows how to play).

Random draft on the other hand does two things that make it suitable for quite serious play on public servers: it forces a pick order which makes counter picking a more strutcured activity than the chaos that is all pick. Second, it restricts the hero pool so drastically that every player in a team needs to carefully consider their choices against their skills. It also acts as a better catalyst for communication, because after the first picks a clearer image of available strategies starts to form in a way that everyone can perceive them. Furthermore, the most popular heroes often don't all make it into the pool. This creates some much needed variety. Seeing certain heroes come up in every other game does get a bit old eventually. Of course you can get very unlucky, and have none of the heroes you actually know come up. This is the disadvantage of random draft. However, I do consider it the best mode for playing with random internet strangers. The only thing it's not good for is practicing a particular hero, because the odds of them actually being available are quite small.

3. Least Played

This mode is not mentioned because of its tournament worthiness, but because of its ability to encourage people to practice new heroes. The system is quite simple. Every player has their 40 most played heroes banned (but only heroes that the player has three or more wins with can get banned, so effectively this can be less than 40). What this means is that every player in the game is playing with a hero they are just not very good with. It gives players a friendlier environment to get the hang of new heroes and still allow them to play against other people instead of bots. Everyone knows that everyone else is new to their hero so people generally wont get flamed for not knowing how to play their hero (there are some asshat people who choose to flame in this mode, but they are very rare). It is the mode where players are allowed to screw up because the punishment for mistakes is generally lower (because the opponents don't know their heroes very well either).

I like this mode because it allows me to play some heroes I would not even dream of trying out in any other mode. I also like the fact that people care much less about winning or losing in this mode. Furthermore, most players have played the most popular heroes too much to get them in this mode, so hero picks tend to have a lot more variety than in most other modes. The matches can also get pretty weird in this mode, far more often than in any other mode. It is entertaining, more relaxed and even a source of new ideas. Currently my biggest lament is that this mode is not nearly as popular as it was after its launch, It often takes up to five times more time to find a least played match (compared to all pick).


Different drafting systems in general are an interesting topic, and they have been used quite effectively in Dota 2 to improve the game. What is really interesting about drafting in Dota 2 is its impact. Like I said, it is the most exciting part of a match between two professional teams. Seeing how it plays out is of course entertaining too, but the draft is where it is really easy to get absorbed. As the captains are doing their job, couch strategists can in a sense take part in the process by trying to guess what is going on in those great minds. The most fun of course is discussing the draft with other players who are watching the match. Another important way in which drafting affects the game is its impact on how games with random internet strangers roll out. The game experience is always affected by the draft mode. It allows Dota 2 to be played in more than one mindset.

For improving one's play with a given hero, there is all pick; for the best team play experience, there is random draft; and for the most relaxing gaming experience, there is least played. Captains mode is there for those moments when a full team gets together to really play some hardcore Dota. That is how I roll anyway. There are yet other modes in the game but they are less noteworthy.