This weekend I decided to pick up Ghost Master that was on sale on Good old Games and I sat down to the paranormal world I’m reminded of how much I liked and dislike this game. There was supposed to be a sequel to Ghost Master but due to low sales that will never be which is the same fate to another game that falls within this concept of like and dislike, Evil Genius. Ironically both titles fall within the same genre in some way, a management hands off type of game.

I’m going to talk about Evil Genius first as this one holds a special place in my heart as one of the last games I played on my previous PC before it bit the dust. You play as an Evil Genius (duh) in an Austin Powers type world with the goal of taking over. To do that you build your secret island lair (duh again) and recruit minions, you mine out the mountain to create rooms and hire two kinds of henchmen. One is the nondescript jump suit wearing goons, who will take on different roles as you train and promote them. The other kind of henchmen is the lieutenants who have unique skills and can lead the other henchmen. The key game mechanics of Evil Genius are building and defending your base and sending out your troops across the globe to complete missions. Besides using your troops, you can develop traps based off of a “if then” programming structure to protect your base from would be attackers. As the game goes on you’ll commit even grander schemes of world conquest and have to deal with super agents like a James Bond rip off. Everything so far sounds excellent, but the game has 2 fatal flaws that doomed it.

First is simply downtime and Evil Genius is full of it. As mentioned you have very little control of what gets done at your base other then building rooms and items, everything else is handled by your men. The problem with this is that everything in this game has the player waiting for it to happen. For example let’s take 4 classes of minions: A, B, C, D in order to get a class D minion you need to train A to B, B to C and finally C to D. Even with higher ranked minions they are still really fragile and I’ve seen even the best die within seconds forcing the player to once again go through the steps to get them back. The other aspect of being an Evil Genius is acquiring money and completing evil acts on the world map and once again the player is going to be spending a lot of time twiddling their thumbs. Units first have to get to the world map, then missions can take anywhere from 1 minute to 7 or more to complete. Money comes in minute by minute but still the player is basically left to basic tasks for the majority of the time. Research is another chore as to unlock research potentials you have to wait for your scientist minions to stumble across an object to analyze it requiring even more waiting. While this is a big issue with Evil Genius, the next one really sinks the game for me, the interface itself.

A good UI can really make a difference with a lot of games and I’ve avoided many good titles due to a lousy one in the past. Evil Genius uses a UI that goes between poor and downright stupid. First big no-no the world map, as mentioned above you can send out troops to the world to steal money or complete missions however to view the world map the player must go to a different screen and look completely away from the base. Without watching the screen enemy agents can spawn and go into your base without much fuss, even with a security system set up I was still not getting any warnings from my cameras. Also on the world map enemy agents will move around the territories and if they enter the same one as your troops they can kill them off. While in the base view there is no way to tell when agents move around or spawn forcing you to quickly go between the two to have any hope of keeping your agents alive. Giving orders to your minions is done through a tagging system, such as tagging a unit for capture or tagging an object to be bought and while it works most of the time when dealing with single units it ruins the game when it comes to an actual emergency.

As mentioned above different agents will come to your base to try and stop your plans and the worse would be the solider class. These guys in groups of 2 to 8 will stomp around your base and will shoot up any minions they see. Now to arm your minions you need to put them into red alert so that they will attack on sight but even that raises a problem. Your minions will basically run around like chickens without a head and will most often engage the soldiers one at time which is instant death. Even with henchmen who can tell minions to follow them for awhile doesn’t work as only some of your minions are useful in a fight. Henchmen will be taken out fast when dealing with soldiers without backup and the only times I’ve successfully handled a fight without too much pain is if by some miracle a few minions follow the henchmen. My problem with this system and the reason why I have to put down Evil Genius is that there should not be any problem, why can’t I just tell everyone to go here and wait for trouble? To me Evil Genius commits a cardinal sin of game design, in which the actual difficulty of the game is due to the interface and not the gameplay. I can go on with other flat out wrong interface decisions but it would drag out this post even longer.

I really do enjoy Evil Genius; it was an original take on the genre with enough humor and interesting design to go far. However there are just too many things that went wrong with the game that I’ve yet to actually finish a game of it. Sadly like most original games that could have used a sequel, the company behind this went out of business after wards which is just a shame. You can find Evil Genius easy on Steam now and play a game that came close to greatness but fell short in the end. Originally I wanted to do both Evil Genius and Ghost Master in the same post but with this one coming close to 3 pages I’m going to end it here and talk about Ghost Master in a new post.

Josh

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This weekend I picked up Red Faction Guerrilla from positive impressions and after spending 4 hours with it I’m about ready to return it and pick up Prototype. Playing RFG, I realized that my main problems with this title are the same design issues I’ve seen in just about every other open world title to date. The problem stems from Grand Theft Auto 3 which made the genre famous and gave everyone a neat little guide for making open world titles. The open world genre seems to be stuck in a rut in my opinion and there is so much potential that is missing from it. Without further ado here are the mechanics that drive me up a wall in these types of games.

1. You’re alone: When it comes down to it there are two main types of open world games, those that have the player above everyone else in terms of ability and those that have the player on equal footing. This complaint is aimed at the latter and one that RFG fails at spectacularly. Why is it in most open world titles when I’m apart of a group or something I spend all my time alone? Where is this group that I’m supposedly apart of and why is it I’m doing all the work. Here’s an example from RDF that ruined the game for me, it’s a mission that has you evacuating a town that is under an artillery strike. According to the briefing this place is of high importance, so then why the hell am I the only one actually doing anything!? Another thing that irritates me is the game’s currency that is mainly gotten from destroying buildings and from completing missions, if this stuff is so valuable why am I the only one who is bringing it in? What are all those nameless NPCS doing while I’m out there getting shot at?

2. Growth is a one sided relationship: As I mentioned in my article on replayability, escalation is one of the key drivers in my opinion and while most open world games escalate the player’s action they never do it to the world itself. In a lot of open world games the world never changes, I’m still performing the same “grunt work” from start to finish. If I supposedly owned half the city in Saints Row 2, then why am I the only one out in the field doing missions? I want the environment to grow and change as the player does, have their actions actually affect the city and not just make an icon disappear off the map. The only sandbox title that I think somewhat meets this was ScarFace in the sense that I could just order henchmen or weapons to come to me which showed that I and the world were at a different point then at the start of the game.

3.Asking too much of what little you have: Interacting with the world is one of the main selling points of open world titles however one of the biggest issues I’ve seen with these titles is a limited interface that is expected to do everything. Playing RFG, the game asks me to attempt stealth options and navigate tricky jumps but there are no systems in place for these 2 completely different mechanics, which in turn forces the player to use an interface not designed for them. Stealth in RFG is close to impossible as the player can be easily detected and only effective quiet weapon is his hammer. For a game that talks about guerrilla warfare there are not really any sneak attacks. Making things harder, the player has no way to climb up walls or ledges which leaves us with a pretty unconvincing jumping model for any kind of athletic endeavors. This issue is also one of the causes for my next issue which is coming up; basically the player is asked to do too much with not enough tools. The problem I think is that in these titles the interface is setup to be too general. If the game wants me to be stealthy then I want a full stealth interface that lets me slip in and out of places and if it wants me to fight close quarters then I want a convincing hand to hand combat system and not just me swinging repeatability until dead. The base game mechanics of the title should be available from the start for the player and let them grow from there, not forcing the player to unlock the skill “be stealthy”

4.Something to do: Now for one of the bigger issues and one I think that has been holding the genre back, the missions themselves. Many reviews can be cited for describing the missions as the weakest part of an open world title and I can think of three reasons for it. First, missions have to be designed around the base game mechanics of a title which if there aren’t a lot of them leaves the designer with few tools for creating interesting objectives. Which could explain why if I remember right, every mission in GTA4 involved killing someone or driving somewhere, as I mentioned above the open world genre needs to give the player a greater ability to affect the world and in the process will open up more mission variety.

Second, is how disconnected the actual missions are from the world itself. There are two types of missions’ standard for open world titles, those that are placed into the world and those that are built in the world. The former is the standard model for open world games and usually involve linear scripted approaches to mission design. The latter has seen a rise in popularity thanks to Crackdown but still needs more work which I’ll talk about next. In order for the genre to improve itself I feel that missions need to be designed more with being built in the world itself as that way it can make the world seem less static.

Third and another major issue in my opinion, is what the player is trying to achieve. No matter how many ways the designer comes up to complete a mission if there is only one objective then it was all for naught. Take Crackdown for instance, yes you have many options for reaching your target but the only thing you can do is kill them. Now this issue will require some designing and programming skill to fix as missions need to be designed not only with multiple ways to do them, but multiple ways to win them as well. I think Crackdown was on to something but it needs to be expanded, for instance take the popular “ruin the bad guy” objective seen in many titles. In most open world games, this is done by having to play multiple missions in a row before the climatic mission. However what happens if that is the only mission and everything else is up to the player? The player can explore the city looking for key targets to hit and do any of them at their leisure; if they want to try tackling the objective head on they can do that as well. Whatever targets they complete will also change the world around them and make it easier to complete the main objective. The more the design is built around multiple paths and options the better the game will be in my opinion.

5.Getting from point A to point B: One thing that has annoyed me for some time in open world games is reaching each objective. For this point I feel that open world titles where the player is above the NPCS is better as being able to leap over buildings or get around in an non orthodox manner is always fun for me. This problem is also made worse depending on the game space, don’t give me a world the size of Texas and only make an area the size of Rhode Island interesting. Designers are getting smarter about this with putting in random events that can pop up during the ride which break up the boredom. To be honest for me there aren’t many ways of fixing this where the player is a regular person other then shrinking the overall game space which it seems more designers are leery of. Random events that have more of an impact on the world could work such as driving right into the middle of a bank robbery or fight and have the player decide how to react.

The open world genre is one that I feel is underutilized, every game that is released under it’s moniker seems to be a third person action title shoehorned into the genre with few exceptions. The problem is that to truly develop something that is “open world” requires an extraordinary amount of resources and top notch designers. Giving the player a wide world to explore is easy; filling that world with things to do is another story all together.

Josh

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I would like to thank rabesandratan for pointing out this gamasutra article or I would have missed a very interesting discussion. For those that missed it, Nintendo is preparing the “Wii Help” which is a system that will make the game play itself if the player is stuck at a tough section and would like to get past it without playing it. The gamasutra comments section is ablaze with people talking about it and as someone who focuses on gameplay the idea of skipping it has some interest to me.

To me this is a dangerous idea on par with online access for console games due to the level that it can be abused. Gameplay in a video game is the main point of a game hence why the word game is included in the phrase. I know that some people think that everyone should be able to beat every game with little or no effort, but that isn’t right. Now I completely understand the difference between frustrating design and challenging design, the former is bad design and the latter is good design. Games are meant to provide a challenge or stimulation to the player, being able to skip sections of it will keep the player from actually improving their skills. I can understand the idea of playing games just for their stories but not playing a video game basically goes against the main functionality of games. For my point I want to look at two different topics one being the target demographic and two on the issue of gameplay itself.

First on the target, according to the article this kind of system is aimed at younger gamers and more casual gamers and I have to raise some kind of offense to this. Before I begin my rant I want to say that my background is in the form of challenge for gameplay, I like games that are relaxing but I also like to play games that make me sweat. When it comes down to it, I believe that if you want to skip parts of a video game then you are doing it wrong unfortunately (I know the common response here and I’ll talk about it in a few minutes). There are many ways to give less skillful players an advantage without downsizing the game experience. One of my favorites was in the first Sly Cooper game that if the player failed a section enough times the game would give the player extra health. I liked this as the designers didn’t need to simplify the gameplay but instead gave less skilled players a little more help. The other part of this point is that it should let anyone regardless of skill level be able to beat a game and this is also where I have a problem.

I remember reading in a game design book a few years ago that one of the popular concepts for design now is to make a game that everyone should be able to beat and I did not like that idea. I can come up with a list of games both older and more current of titles that their difficulty was either the main attraction or the cornerstone of the experience. This is one of those concepts that are too broad for its own good in my opinion as should games aimed at the hardcore gamers of the genre be made to attract complete newcomers? Now this is not aimed against games that have different difficulty levels, I fully support having the game scale to the person’s skill level, this is against games that in order to get a larger audience either scale back the design or simplify the game. Next it’s time to talk about the gameplay and what danger this poses to it.

Let me come out and admit it, there are plenty of games that I’ve played that having something like this system would have been great for. However I personality would never use it and this is where my 2nd point against this comes in. If a game features a section that is poorly designed enough to warrant this system then the designer has failed and I’ve seen it happened plenty of times. An imbalanced section, a sharp spike of the difficulty curve and so on can become a wall for most gamers to progress. Metroid Prime 3 features several poorly designed sections that made me came close to quitting and one that finally drove me away (the final boss fight). Having the Wii Help would have made life easier but really should we ignore bad design because of this system? This is where I believe the danger of this kind of system comes in, as it gives designers a free pass against balance. I had the same reaction to the rise of downloadable content on consoles as a way of rushing games to the market or abusing that system similar to how EA has done with cheats that can be bought for certain games. I want to make a distinction between skipping game sections and providing in game hints as I’m fine with the latter. Another favorite mechanic of mine was introduced in Myst Uru where the player could get different degrees of hints on every puzzle in the game from the Myst web page. From a gentle push in the right direction to a step by step guide and I think something like that would be a better fit.

Determining what is considered a challenge and was is considered bad game design is a bit too much for this topic but an important part of this discussion. We all have our own opinion of challenge in games but when we’re not dealing with the latter, the point of video games is to play them. If someone isn’t good enough to figure out Lego Star Wars then maybe they’re not ready for that game yet. There are many games I’ve played when I was younger that I had a different experience playing them now with more experience under my belt. Instead of trying to shoehorn every gamer into every game, try aiming for those that will appreciate what you are going for, or in other words the target audience.

Josh

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Replayability is one of my favorite words when it comes to games as it describes one of the strongest selling points of them. Unlike other media, games can be replayed for many reasons and for this entry I’m going to try and look at them all. For the sake of the entry I’m going to define replayability as returning to a game after finishing it as well as continuing to play through a title.

1. Escalation: From the arcade days of the industry one of the basic hooks of getting people to spend more money was to up the challenge with each new level. Eventually the player will reach a level that is so overwhelmingly difficult that it will end their game, and then they will spend more money to try and beat it. While the use of quarters has fortunately gone away this mechanic has stayed. You can see this in just about every video game out there; with each new level/section/world something new or different awaits the player, whether it’s a new enemy to kill them or some kind of item to be used. In essence this is why most games don’t start the player out with everything as they need some kind of hook to keep the player going.

2. Competition : Another mechanic that has been around for awhile and has since gotten even stronger thanks to the internet, playing against real people is always better then dealing with a limited AI. I’ve seen multiple ways of building competition in games, from full on multiplayer modes to just a simple high score list in your game. In other words why beat the crap out of an AI when you can do it to your friends?

3. Cooperation : Like #2, cooperation has been around for roughly the same time span. Like most arcade gamers I remember the excellent X-Men arcade game with its 6 player co-op. L4D seems to be the best coop game in recent years and has managed to combine both points 2 and 3 into it’s game mechanics. Once again there just is something different about playing a game with real people as opposed to the AI.

4. The Experience. Now for this one, I may be the only who uses it but we’ll see. #4 is about the game play itself and how many games are not replicated. For instance, I like to play Shadow of The Colossus, Ico, and Killer 7 at least once a year. Not because these games are highly replayable but because there isn’t anything like them around. I do think that in some way this point can also be attributed to classic games like X-Com or Star Control 2 as we’ve yet to see a game truly capture what made these games great in recent years. I can easily compared games that fall into this category to art as each one is unique and usually never replicated again, or if it is without the same spark that was there in the first place.

5: Randomization When I first started coming up with this list I thought about leaving this one off as it is a really broad game mechanic. However the more I thought about it and how much of an effect it has I realized that it needed to be included on this list. While randomization on it’s own can be a diversion , when combined with point 1 can really add to a game’s life span just take a look at Diablo 2 if you don’t believe me. I’m a firm believer in adding randomization in some way shape or form to my game titles, even if it is just something small like randomizing enemy design in an action title. Every little bit can help keep the game experience fresh.

Replayability can both be considered an afterthought or the main point of the experience depending on the game and I believe these 5 points constitute it well.

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