I believe that inside every gamer there is a pinch of masochism, the part that enjoys to play hard video games. That relishes fighting an incredibly strong boss fight that has instant death powers, or spent a day trying to beat God of War 1’s final boss section on god mode (Right here). Obviously this depends on the player and one person’s impossibly difficult fight is another players cake walk.

This is evident in the genre known as Rogue-Likes. I know fans hate for this genre to be labeled as a RPG, so I’ll refer to it simply as “rogue” for this entry. Rogues are games known for having huge difficulty and a punishing death penalty. In most games when you die you have an option of continuing from a save point, here when you die your done. All items and experience earned are taken away from you and your sent back to the start. So then why the hell do people like to play this genre of deaths and restarts ?

Well because this is one of the most balanced genres I’ve seen in some time. One of my biggest beefs with most RPGS is that rules only apply to you, why am I able to be stoned but that pink rabbit is immune? In rogues everything that can affect you, can affect everything else in the world. Whether it’s a spell that sends you flying backwards, to being turned into a riceball. Rogues also featured some of the most overpowered items in any other genre, which basically gives you a fighting chance here. I’ll discuss the popular elements of this genre a little later.

Last month the game known as Mystery Dungeon Shiren the Wanderer was released over here for the first time. The game itself has been available in Japan since the super Famicom days (or a “free” translated version online). To experts of the genre, Shiren is considered to be the best example of everything right (and wrong to critics) of the genre. In the game you play as of course Shiren who has one goal, to reach the top of Table Mountain (trust me it’s scarier then it sounds), armed with his talking weasel (no I’m not making that up) and a huge hat filled with determination you set off for adventure. Enemies in Shiren come in all types, from slimes that can rust (which weakens) your equipment, to enemies that can turn you into riceballs or throw you into the middle of a room filled with monsters. The game is set up that every action counts as a turn and once you move everyone in the level moves. Making getting surrounded equal to instant death.

Shiren isn’t defenseless however (even though he starts that way), magic staves that can affect any enemy with it’s magic are available, as well as scrolls or as I call them “oh shit!” buttons for when all hell is breaking loose. Storerooms are placed in 3 of the 5 towns that will save any items no matter what. Blacksmiths are on hand to improve your weapons to obscene levels of power and a powerful shield can make life very easy. One of the strategies involve taking one weapon to each blacksmith, stocking it and redoing the process after you die.

As a general rule if you see any reviewer complain that when you die you lose everything, then you know they are not fans of Rogues. Yet this is one of the more popular elements in Rogue games. First we have challenge, you will die in a Rogue game, and you will die often. The odds are pretty much stacked against you and it’s your job to make those odds work. Enemies have some nasty special effects , from knocking away your treasured weapon into oblivion, to the occasional death while being confused. In order to survive your going to need some help.

Which leads us to the next point randomization (there’s that word again). Everything in Rogues with exception to towns are randomize each time. Weapons, maps, and enemy placements will never be the same. You can be lucky and get one of the best weapons on the very first map, or be stuck to the end punching enemies with your fist. This also makes the gameplay tense, as you never known when you stumble on a trap that reduces your health to 1 in the middle of a fight. The randomization also leads me to another great thing.

Item variety and usage, in most RPGS your stuck with the standard laundry list of swords, magic spells, etc. In rogues you have access to items that can erase one enemy type from ever showing up again in that play thru. Swords can attack multiple spaces in front of you, and those lovely scrolls come with all kinds of effects. The one thing that you need to realize is that saving items for a rainy day is a no no. With death and maybe some kind of uber item around the corner you need to live for the now instead of hoarding for a future event. The list of items in Rogues is a bit too long to get into detail about here, but it does help me transition into one of my favorite elements of Rogues.

Strategy and tactics, not something you usually read about in a non strategy title. Yet Rogues require a fair amount of strategy to win. Since the rules apply to everyone , it makes it possible to use these rules to your own advantage and develop tactics to use in grave situations. For example in Shiren you can find a staff that paralyzes any enemy you hit it with. If your being followed down a long passageway by several enemies you can use this to stop the group and force them to find another way to get to you. There are alot of different examples I can use, but it helps to play the game and learn them for yourself.

For the players who can reach the end of a rogue there is still more to do. Rogues are also known for having a great amount of post game content in a form of new dungeons that bend the rules in their own unique way. One dungeon in Shiren allows the player to use all those traps that are found in the game to make it thru the dungeon. Some dungeons require you to bring in your own powered up equipment to stand a chance in them, these aren’t my favorite as your left with very little time playing for the amount of grinding needed to win these. Shiren also features one uber dungeon, a 99 floor dungeon where anything can happen and all the items are unidentified when you enter. I’ve yet to even break into the double digits here. These examples of post game content are designed for the players who already know how to beat the game normally to now try something a bit different.

The problem that I think developers of Rogues have is how to design one, which leads to a catch 22 situation. Either they make a rogue so challenging and requires alot of skill that all the fans will love it , but no one else will even attempt to play this from reviews. Or they make it more casual, keep items after death or statistics which will attract non fans but leave the fans high and dry. Examples of the latter happened last year when Izuna and Pokemon Mystery Dungeon were released, both are examples of Rogues yet made easier to attract more fans.

After trying Baroque out for the Wii, I’m going to have argue keeping Rogues in either 2d and/or turn based. The real time combat makes things a bit to chaotic and being able to run easily eliminates the need for strategy. I can’t tell you how many times the camera ended up facing me to a wall while several enemies slowly surround me. According to people who played all the way thru to the post content, is where things get interesting but the core gameplay isn’t enough for me to run thru so many floors of the main story to get there.

Personality the less punishing elements of Rogues, Balance, randomization, item variety, and strategy I want to see more of in regular RPGS. Maybe a way to make both parties happy is to have difficulty levels that change the content from standard hack and slash all the way up to Rogue level. But I think it’s going to have to be a necessary evil to have a huge difficulty for the rogue experience.

Taking for example Izuna which I just picked up today, the game is indeed a rogue with all the elements in place. With two major differences, first boss encounters which for a nice touch aren’t immune to anything, and the fact that your level stays with you even if you fail. I’m not sure how to respond to this, as I know that hard core rogue players find this as a cop out. This does makes thing a bit easier then Shiren, still for those who want a chance to get into this genre, Shiren is the more complete package in my opinion.

I wonder if there is a way to modernize the genre, making it more accessible to newcomers while still keeping the extreme challenge to provide entertainment for the hard core gamers.

Josh.

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A few entries ago I talked about story as a form of art in video games and movies, since then I started thinking about something else. Can game play be elevated to art, not the graphics of story just the actual mechanics. As someone who focuses his attention on game design this is a very interesting idea for me. Game play is the most important element of video games in my opinion, and there are many games out there with exceptional gameplay (Mario Galaxy, the GTA series, X-com, among others), but can we say that the process of creating interesting challenges and gameplay is an art form?

It may surprise you that someone like me who focuses on gameplay will say this, but I don’t think gameplay can be considered art. Of all the elements of a video game, the actual gameplay is the most subjective to review. If gameplay wasn’t that debatable, we wouldn’t have dozens of game reviewing sites and magazines. I found games like God Hand and Shiren the Wanderer excellent examples of gameplay, while review sites blasted these games for the very same elements .

When it comes to graphics and story telling, those elements are less subjective we can tell when a game looks great or realistic. A great story while subjective , still has recurring themes in them. Gameplay is being constantly rewritten and evolving, look at how the MMO genre has grown from the early days to now with World of Warcraft. Grand Theft Auto has had an amazing effect on both the gaming industry and the sandbox genre. I just can’t think about how the purple coin challenges in Mario Galaxy are so amazingly created that they are art.

I can’t really go on anymore without repeating the same things, I would really like to hear what game designers have to say on this topic.

Josh.

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It’s time to talk about collectible card games or CCG. Since Wizards of the Coast unveiled Magic the Gathering in the early 90s, the genre has taken off with numerous games on the market. I’ve tried a few times to get in on the CCG craze early on, but not living near any comic shops or active hang outs , got rid of the G for me in CCG. There are some elements in CCG games that I think are perfect fits for video games and I believe that we are already seeing the influence.

Now lets talk about CCGs, while explaining the difference between Yu-Gi-Oh and Magic the Gathering is abit extreme, the popular elements that exist in each CCG isn’t. First is the collectible aspect, cards come in all forms of rarity from the common Celtic Guardian all the way to Relinquish ( I apologize if I’m bringing back any painful memories of Yu-Gi-Oh, but thanks to the TV show and online game it’s the only CCG game that I followed for some time.) One facet of these games is not even playing them, but collecting the cards, besides I think a blue eyes white dragon is cooler then a baseball card any day. There are people out there who basically buy and sell cards for profit and thanks to the next point there is a pretty big market for them.

Multiplayer, every CCG game is basically an open invitation for matches. To pit your “ultimate deck” against another player is a popular pastime. And then we have tournaments, where now those cards can equal big money for both sellers and buyers. A very rare card can tip the balance for any player and being one of the lucky ones to get it in their $3 booster set can mean a big pay out. I’ll be talking about the delicate process that is balance in these games in alittle bit, but it’s safe to say that the best way to beat someone’s rare card is with one of your own.

Now before I discuss the elements that best fit with video games, lets talk about the dark side of CCGS. While I love the CCG genre there are a few problems with it that are the nature of the beast.

Cost of entry, there is a huge difference with CCG games between playing them for fun, and playing for real. The basic starter deck of CCG games gives you the bare mininium to get a deck going, but there is no way that this deck will stand up against someone who has been collecting cards from the past few years. So your forced to buy booster paks, and if your like me you’ll get duplicates of the same crappy cards in your pak. Which leads to constant spending to get the cards you want, and of course with expansion paks means you’ll have to buy more. Let’s face it, the CCG genre is not for someone on a budget, and good luck if a card you want is rare or no longer in circulatation. And to really add insult to injury, CCGs sometimes require you to buy your way into tournements, as spending several hundred dollars on cards wasn’t enough.

The cost of entry issue leads us to my next slam against it, time and money are > skill playing. Balance in CCG games means that some cards will never beat others, and having a deck that
is made up of the most expensive cards will easily trump someone with skill. During my time with Yu-Gi-Oh online there was this popular card that not only weakens any cards that attack it, but gain a power bonus if you summon it face down. You either had to be real lucky with getting cards after the match, or have enough money to buy copies of the card. After facing someone who had 6 copies of this card in their deck, I swore off the game. Now there are some ways to circumvent this problem which is coming up in this entry. This forces players to basically commit their money in the pursuit of better cards and can downplay strategy .

With the good and the bad said, now I’ll turn my attention to what elements CCGs have that can work really well with video games.Customization is the big one for me, being able to create your own strategies and develop your deck based on your personality and such. Whether your building a deck of heavy hitters, or powerful defense cards it’s really up to each player how they want their deck to be. What I like is that there are no wrong answers per say, yes weaker cards will lose to stronger cards, but there is no instant win strategy or list of the perfect deck to use. During my time with Yu-Gi-Oh I focus on a deck that destroys my opponents deck, using various cards that have that affect and when it worked it worked very well.

Next is replayability , one thing about CCG games is that while there are still cards being made, there are new strategies and decks to build. From personal experience it is satisfying to build decks just how you want them and just getting one new card can make a huge difference . When playing against other players, you always in for a surprise as everyone has the same idea of creating their own deck which keeps things from getting stale.

Balance is a huge deal for CCGs, I would love to be a fly on the wall when the designers are putting together a new card. Unfortunately I don’t have any experience here so this section will be brief. CCGs are based on extremes for the most part, either my card is going to beat your card or it’s going to die. Balancing out cards usually requires tweaking the cost of using the card in play, that uber beast with 3000 attack points is going to require some resources to bring onto the table. Yet one of the things I like about CCGS is how there are many cards that can break all those little balancing rules. Suddenly that weaker card now has a chance of stopping that stronger card with a power boost card, or even wiping it out without going into combat. One card in Yu-Gi-Oh allows you to summon any high level card without needing sacrifices, a great way to end things early. Even while being able to break the rules with cards, the rules themselves are fully explained and leaves little room for doubt when playing. This adds another layer of complexity and strategy to CCGs.

Finally comes multiplayer, which shouldn’t be a surprise at this point . Any game that has customization and replayability begs to be played with friends. To see other decks, and most importantly see if your deck is up to code. Tournaments where rare cards are prizes will draw a huge number of fans and players and is yet another social aspect of CCGs.

There have been some games that have attempted to mix these elements in, and for the most part succeeded. God Hand for the ps2 allows players to choose all attacks and their order for combos. Age of Empires 3 takes things a step further allowing you to create a deck of upgrades that can be sent to you during gameplay. From more resources , to unique researches that can enhance your style of play. Personality this is the direction I want turn based and real time strategies to go, allow me to create my own take of the various sides that suits my needs and play style.

A few years ago a Xbox game called Phantom Clash introduced CCG aspects into a third person shooter. All your attacks and defenses are based on psychic powers that you mix and match before combat. Once again allowing you to develop your own personal style. I just picked up the game The World Ends With You for the Nintendo DS which follows this idea as well. You can pick and choose what attacks you want to use for combat and change them anytime.

Another game would be Star Chamber , which came out awhile ago. This game combines a Turn Based Strategy title with CCGs. You have access to units and such without needing cards, but the cards themselves make up all research, special abilities, hero units, and stronger units. You can also buy into tournament plays and subscribe for booster paks. My problem with the game was that I was looking for more elements of CCGs and less Turn Based Strategy.

I saved the best for last, the game that really combines these elements and is one of the better turn based strategy titles I’ve seen in awhile is Armageddon Empires. ( http://www.crypticcomet.com/games/AE/armageddon_empires.html )This game combines board games, war games, and CCGs into one amazing blend of gameplay. The only thing holding me back is the interface (of course for the people who read this blog you probably know that by now 🙂 ) . You build your army from one of 4 sides, each one features their own unique units, and buildings from which you build your deck from. At this point I could probably dedicate a whole entry to this game, but I suggest if you haven’t to check this game out.

Being able to customize your play style is an excellent leap forward in game design and even games like Call of Duty 4 and the recent BattleField game emulate this to some effect. The important detail is to give the player all available options , no booster paks and let them create from there. I don’t know if CCGs have really influence the games I mentioned here (with obvious exception to Armageddon empires) but the idea of customizing your play style was first made popular thanks to the CCG genre. By giving the player access to all available options at the start also stops players from just buying all the best options. Stronger options can be placed higher up, allowing you to keep newcomers away from expert games. Yet in First Person Shooters, a lower level player should have a chance at taking out higher levels.

For all I talk about loving the elements of this genre, I’ve only thought up one game idea that fully uses these elements. It’s a RTS game where you army is made up of toys, and you basically create your side by choosing what ever toys and buildings ( for research) that you want. In essence you create a “Toy Box” in which to fight other players, hence the name Toy Box. I really want the strategy genre to take a cue from CCGs, as using these elements in design should lead to more engaging gameplay.

Josh

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It’s time to talk about story telling in video games. Personality this is the hardest part of designing for me, I can spend all day thinking up game mechanics and levels, but ask me to craft an intricate story and I stumble. Which is one of the arguments on if games need stories. I believe that not every game needs an award winning story, take a look at God Hand for the Ps2. The gameplay was top notch, but the story was pretty nonsensical.

Another part of this , is the famous “are games considered art?” issue I’ve seen over the last few years. I think some games can be considered art, but not all games are art. There are some games that I think hit that line for art, such as ICO , Shadow of the Colossus, and Killer 7. There are two others that come to mind , but that plays into my big discussion coming up.

To me one of the staples of a game that crosses that line into art, is the world the game takes place in. Not just the story of ” guy saves princess” but the actual setting itself. This is where I think a lot of developers stumble abit, there is more to creating a world then just having a save the world angle to the story.

In order to have a world there needs to be a back story, something that defines the setting and the creatures and buildings I’m going to witness. This is where the argument that not all games are art apply, as some games quite frankly don’t need a story to be good. The Mario franchise thrives on it’s amazing platforming not on its story. An argument could be said that the excellence of the platforming could be an art, but that is beyond the scope of this entry.

Stepping back abit I want to talk about movies that are art to me. As I mentioned in another entry I love the works of Miyazaki, and I’m going to explain why . In his movies he doesn’t just create a story, he creates this setting that just feels like it could exist. It doesn’t seem that the story came first, but that he created a world and then started to think about what he could tell in this place. In each movies of his that I’ve seen, it always feels that you could explore this world outside of the story and still find amazing people and places.

Another reason are the characters he creates, there is allot of mystery around them and in most cases we never learn everything about them. In Spirited Away, my favorite character is the black shadow like creature as it has an air of mystery around it and we learn alot about it’s emotions even though it never speaks. It’s his types of movies that I would love to see adventure game makers follow, as I really want to explore those worlds. I almost forgot how he creatures characters who are emotionally strong, not steroid pumped angst filled EMO people.

Getting back to games, while the games I already listed are fine examples these next two are the cream of the crop in my opinion. First is World of Warcraft, Blizzard is one of the few companies that really develop their stories and it’s evident in the history. In StarCraft we have 3 unique origin stories for each side, as well as units that fit into that history. How ever in Warcraft the history of the world provides gamers with a huge backdrop for World of Warcraft. I really can’t go into any further detail as I don’t currently play World of Warcraft, which could be explained in a future entry 🙂

Now for #1 on my list of games that are considered art, the OddWorld Franchise. For those not familiar with it. The series comes from OddWorld Inhabitants, a game company created that attempted to bridge the medium of movie telling and gaming. The series has a strong anti capitalism message and is environmentally friendly. Like the works of Miyazaki, we are treated to a wide array of creatures and locales, each teeming with it’s own background. The world of Oddworld has been transformed from it’s original setting due to the bad guys that are polluting it. If you haven’t, I strongly urge you to find a copy of the Art of Oddworld and just see all the images created for this franchise. Just looking thru the pages you can see that they just didn’t slap together a bunch of art, but actually created a world.

I know from looking at these examples I have a long way to go before I could even be mentioned in the same breath as the creators of these games, or as a storyteller on the same scale as Miyazaki. This would be an excellent time to end with some excellent quote from one of his movies, but nothing is coming to mind. All I’ll say is that I really want to have my own moving castle 🙂

Josh

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