It feels like ages since I last played a game from Remedy, I remember reading previews all about Alan Wake, watching those nondescript teaser videos and being pissed that I wouldn’t get to play it because they made it 360 only (this was back before I got a 360 of course). Seems fitting then that after I got my new 360 (my old one passed away this month) that this would be the first game I get to play on it.

Alan Wake is an interesting combination of horror and action games. You play as the title character and without spoiling the story, crazy stuff happens to Mr. Wake and it’s up to you to see him through it. The interplay between light and darkness permeates throughout the game design. During the day the game goes into exposition mode as you learn more about what’s going on and then when it gets dark it’s time to run.

Every enemy in the game is possessed by darkness and the only way to hurt them is to use light to burn away their shield leaving them vulnerable to good old fashioned bullets. Light is also used as an oasis of safety in the darkness, as standing underneath lamp posts will allow you to recover health and prevent enemies from getting close to you.

One interesting mechanic that I have to commend Remedy on is the use of the “panic button” that I talked about in my action game analysis. Flares and flash bangs can be used to give you a few moments of safety as you are running through the dark and I like the concept of giving someone ten seconds of peace in a horror game, sure you’re safe but ten seconds go by very fast.

Another subtle detail I liked about Alan Wake was how everything had a sense of weight in the world. From how Alan takes a few seconds before he will start to run, or how enemies react to gun fire and being hit by light, it adds a sense of immersion to the game. Normally I don’t talk about graphics in my entries but I do have to give a shout out to the lighting in the game, during the night the interplay between light and dark were done exceptionally well.

I do have some problems with Alan Wake, as I mentioned earlier the game is a combination of horror and action titles and sometimes it feels that the game is being pulled in two different directions. With the action, there are not a varied amount of encounters in the game. I counted 5 main types of enemies and the tactics used for each one don’t differ. Very rarely do you have to do something that doesn’t involve running in a circle trying to knock out their shields to defeat them and it starts to get repetitive. The narrative and the content are at odds here; it feels like I’m watching a three hour movie padded out to about eight hours.

Another conflict between the horror and the action is that Alan is constantly losing his equipment through the plot and at the start of each episode he starts back at square one. Why he doesn’t stock up at the hardware store during the day is never really explained. The best thing you can do is to condition yourself that each episode is its own little game and just not horde anything.

The constant combat during the night also hurts the horror aspect. Knowing how to kill every enemy does put a cap on the fear factor and it doesn’t help that the game does a slow motion pan around Alan whenever enemies spawn. The best sections are when you are low on ammo and you are trying to leap frog between each safe area while being chased by the taken. I really wanted to see more enemies or those that required different tactics, such as a taken that is wearing some kind of body armor and you can only melt away and do damage to specific parts of their body.

As the game moves forward into the later sections things do pick up towards the conclusion. I found the story generally interesting and I will admit that there is a certain sense of satisfaction using the flare gun on a group of taken.

I do want to talk about the DLC as it does play into my opinion of Alan Wake. The first DLC episode called The Signal was released while the second one hasn’t come out yet. To be honest I think I enjoyed The Signal more than the regular game. The main reason is that it fixed my main complaint about the main game, in which there wasn’t much variety with the encounters. I do not want to spoil it but The Signal does a great job with mixing up the general game-play of Alan Wake.

Another reason I liked it was that it did not pull any punches in terms of difficulty, since at this point the only people who would be playing it are those that finished the main game. I found the challenge level to be more fair playing it on hard then I did trying to play the main game on nightmare difficulty (hardest one).

There has been some discussion about whether the dlc will continue or if the developers will move on to Alan Wake 2; recently they announced that the 2nd dlc will be the last which I think is a shame. Personally I think Alan Wake works better as these separate episodes compared to lumping everything together. Also now that the game is done they could continue to expand on the game-play instead of starting back at square one with a sequel.

Overall I enjoyed Alan Wake, it’s not quite a horror game and it’s not pure action, but it did a great job of combining elements from both. Personally I would love to see them do an open world game like this with a day/night cycle as I think having that mechanic in place could improve the horror factor.

Josh

P.S An alternate title for this entry would have been “Are you Afraid of the Dark?” but I figured if I was going to go for esoteric phrases I should reach further back then the 90s.

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For those that read my entry on companies that I liked, Stardock was on the list and I was waiting for their newest game Elemental. I played a bit of the beta but technical issues prevented me from getting too deep into it. I was all excited when the game was released hoping that this would be game that I was waiting for that I would enjoy greatly. Once again it turns out that I should stop being excited about games until they come out.

Elemental is a 4X fantasy strategy title, you create your character or sovereign and must survive in a world that was destroyed for some reason that I really wasn’t paying attention to. Like any good 4x game you’ll have to build cities, research better technology and of course deal with the other factions.

Let’s start with the good; unlike most 4X titles where you don’t have much control over your army design at the unit level, Elemental does offer the ability to personalize your units. You can equip different weapons and gear and give your units a unique edge. Your sovereign can be created from scratch and can also use spells that can be used both in combat and on the field.

Combat is handled in two ways, auto resolved for small fights and tactical combat for fights between larger groups. You determine positioning and can use offensive spells to destroy the enemy before they do the same to you. One of the things that I did not like about Civ 4 and most TBS titles were the hands off nature with combat, which made this, be good news for me.

Next up is how technology works, in most titles you have a standard tech tree: IE I build X it unlocks Y which unlocks Z and so on. In Elemental you have five categories that you can research at any time:

Civilization: Unlocks new buildings for you cities.

Warfare: Unlocks new equipment and the ability to train better units and group them up.

Magic: Unlocks the ability to control magic shards that allow you to strengthen your spells.

Diplomacy: Allows you to offer new treaties with the AI.

Adventure: Unlocks quests, recruit-able heroes, monsters and resources on the map.

When you complete research in one of the five you can then choose a tech from that category. For example researching a level of Warfare may give you the option to either unlock better armor, or better swords. For each level you complete in research it raises the amount needed for subsequent unlocks. The actual tech available is also graded on how rare it is to show up with the rarer it is the better. One of the later unlocks in diplomacy (if I remember right) allows you to recruit dragons which are incredibly powerful late game units. The luck of the draw with getting tech does keep repeated play from being repetitive.

So far the game sounds pretty good right? However it’s time to deliver the bad news. As it stands currently Elemental is not only flawed technically but also from a design point of view. Let’s talk about technical first at launch the game was incredibly buggy, with massive slowdown and crashes. With the last few patches the game has become more stable however the AI still doesn’t put up much of a fight (I’ve played at hard difficulty). Stardock has been working on this area and this problem just takes time to fix. However on the design side, that is another story.

The problems with Elemental’s design are that there are a bunch of good ideas present here but nothing that ties everything together. For example as it stands right now warfare is the dominant tech as one stack of powerful units will wipe the floor with everything, no need to worry about city building or diplomacy. There is little variety in the different spell trees and as it stands; it is too weak to justify focusing exclusively in it. The idea of leveling up your sovereign and other heroes sounds good on paper, but when one party of basic units can wipe them out it also renders the adventuring tech (other than resource generation) mostly useless.

Designing units sounds good in theory but there just wasn’t much thought put into it. I did not see much of a difference between weapons other than their damage and if they were one handed or two handed. Most cases the pre made units will do the job nicely. Every game of mine ended with me taking one big stack of units around the map killing everything I see.

We have a bunch of mechanics in Elemental but there are no dynamics between them. Currently the ability to raise a family and have heirs is useless for several reasons. One: A single hero unit is noticeably weaker than a party of military units. Two: Magic’s cost outweighs the benefits most of the time. Three: Diplomacy is so broken right now that there is no need to arrange marriages with other factions. The entire system is just there, not interacting with any of the other mechanics.

When I did my entry on simplifying mechanics I talked about the challenge of creating 4X strategy titles and how all the systems need to be reliant on each other. With Elemental there is no cohesion here and the entire game suffers from it. To give a good example I want to talk about a little known game that I don’t think anyone knows about has a sequel out.

Civilization 5 by the time you read this is going to be out in the US. Up until this past week I did not pay any attention to Civ 5. The main reason was that I will admit I did not like Civ 4; the combat system just didn’t do it for me. The other night I stayed up late watching a two hour video of the designers playing Civ 5 and now I’m really tempted to pick up the game.

 The reason is I saw a very interesting game with a concise and clear game-play. Just watching them play I saw how much detail and work went into all the systems to have everything work together. For example the change to how resources like iron and horses work, have changed combat, diplomacy and even city founding with new dynamics.

The more I watched the more I saw how Firaxis went over the systems and UI with a fine tooth comb making sure that they have everything worked the way they wanted. The change to combat now not relying on the “stack o doom” has me very interested. Having all your systems and mechanics working together like that is in my opinion what defines a good 4X game.

Everything that I liked about Civ 5 in those two hours of footage, I did not see within the 10+ hours I spent with Elemental. Like I said earlier Elemental isn’t horrible by any means, but as it stands right now there isn’t much meat to the game.

Tactical combat for the most part is just watching units hit each other with weapons with exception to sovereigns and summoned creatures. Once again another example of a system not fully developed or integrated with the other mechanics of the game.

After Elemental was release there were several articles and comments made about the game and I don’t want to drag anything of that here. One comment that was made by Brad Wardell (designer of Elemental and CEO of Stardock) which I’ll paraphrase was him talking about looking at the game from the view of a programmer and not a designer. I want to touch on that kind of mindset for a second.

My opinion which I’m going to sound very full of myself when I say this is that for any game you need to have someone like me on staff. Someone who will analyze and work on the actual mechanics of the game to make sure that everything is integrated and works together. You can see the difference in how the game systems interact between Elemental and Civ 5. You can’t design multiple game systems in a vacuum, they all need to work and affect one another. As I’m typing this I’ve started coming up with ideas for how to revamp the magic system, a trait system for units and how to start having the various tech paths interact with each other.

So it comes down to this, as it stands right now with Elemental at patch 1.08 I would not buy this game if I were you. Especially with Civ 5 on the horizon, there are good ideas present with Elemental but not good game design. Stardock has said that they will commit to improving Elemental and patch 1.1 is going to be their first big one. At this time I have no idea what will be the magic patch that will make Elemental amazing, could it be 1.1, 1.2, 1.3? I wish I knew as I really wanted to like Elemental.

If you are interested in Elemental I would keep your eye on their home page and follow their journals and patch notes and wait for more patches. Personally I think it’s going to be interesting to look at Elemental in a year’s time or even six months to see how different it will be compared to what we have right now.

Josh.

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Once in a while it is nice to have a game fall into your lap and having never heard of it, enjoy it. That is what happened when I played the demo for Recettear and soon after bought the game. The game has a Reese’s Peanut Butter cup feel to it as it combines two different game systems to create one great experience.

Let’s start with the plot, you play as Reccet whose father decided one day to up and leave her to become one of those JRPG heroes who finds fame and fortune. Unfortunately for Reccet her father also left her with a massive debt and now the collection agency has sent over a fairy by the name of Tear to collect. Instead of throwing Reccet out on the street Tear decides to help her and they turn Reccet’s house into an item shop to sell all kinds of stuff to would be heroes and villagers.

The main goal is to pay off Recet’s debt which an installment must be made at the end of each week. If you miss a week’s deadline it’s game over. Losing isn’t completely bad, as your stats and items found stay persistent with each play through.

There are two main systems at work in Recettear, shop management and dungeon crawling; let’s start with the shop. Any item that you pick up can be put on display in your shop both to attract customers and to sell. Once someone has found something they want you need to decide how much to charge them, the higher from the base price the better for you. Go to high however and you’ll risk pissing people off (turns out charging $1000 for a candy bar may be a bit high). Each time you make a successful sale you will gain experience to raise your merchant level, each rank up will get you a new mechanic or bonus such as being able to buy items from people and more.

You can buy items from the local market and merchant guild however you’ll be spending money that you need to pay your bills with. Thankfully there is another way and this is where the dungeon crawling comes in. You can lease an adventurer to go into a dungeon with you. They gain fame and fortune and you get any loot that drops. Each hero has a different attack, equipment they can wear and special attacks, as a hero levels up they will cost more money to join you.

You may bring items into the dungeon with you, such as better equipment for your adventurer or food to heal. Every five floors you will face a boss section and by beating it you will be able to leave and take everything you found with you. However if the adventurer’s health hits 0 they will be KO and you will only be able to bring back one item of your choosing and the rest will be gone. Combat takes us back to the days of SNES RPGS such as Zelda or Illusion of Gaia. Everything is real time and each adventurer has an attack arc that allows them to hit enemies that aren’t directly in front of them.

The dynamic between running the shop and dungeon crawling is where the charm of Recettear shines through. By running the shop you’ll get the money needed to pay off your debt and continue playing and possibly selling better gear to your adventurers to help them in the dungeon. While going into the dungeons will net you materials to craft better items or just find great items which you can then sell back in the shop and the cycle continues. By selling better gear to your adventurers the new gear will take the place of their default equipment meaning that you won’t have to bring gear with you into the dungeons and instead have that space available for more drops.

The game was designed with that “one more turn” feel to it. Besides the previous paragraph there is always the sense of progression with your merchant level and as your level goes up some of the later bonuses are incredibly useful, such as increasing the amount of items you can bring back from the dungeon. Finishing the game unlocks endless mode allowing you to keep playing without worrying about the debt as well as survival mode where you keep playing with an ever increasing debt waiting for you at the end of the week.

There are a few problems though with Recettear that comes from its JRPG roots. A lot of the games more advance mechanics are not fully explained or even mentioned. While you are reading paragraphs of flavor text there may be one paragraph out of ten that has something useful for you. Finding things out on your own is great for a lot of games, but when you have a time limit in place it can become frustrating to learn that you could have done something that would have helped you earlier. Concepts such as store atmosphere and bonuses for charging the right amount of money were never explained to me and I had to look them up online.

This became really annoying when I realized that for my first run I completely missed the fourth dungeon which is where the item drops start to get really good because I didn’t jump through the right hoops. Granted it is possible to beat the main game without stepping into a dungeon, but for me that would get rid of the dynamic between the two different systems.

Another issue is that it’s hard to get an accurate measure for the shop management game-play. There are not a lot of customer types and it seems to be random what items they want. This can also lead to frustration if you need to make a large amount of money fast and no one wants to buy your expensive items. Also there are times the customer asks you for something and you have no idea what they want. I had someone ask me for something valuable which I assume meant an expensive grandfather clock but they walked out in disgust.

One strategy I’ve read about that works is to not go overboard in prices early on to make people trust you more so that they will spend more money in the later weeks. Basically you are not going to take what you learn from Recettear and build your own empire rivaling Wal Mart. One thing that bothered me was how random it was to get adventurer’s to buy equipment that they can use, I wish I could just say to one of them” hey I got this really bad-ass sword you can use and it would make life easier if you would buy it”.

The control scheme could throw people for a loop as this was a game ported from Japan. The default controls use the arrow keys and z, x, c and w keys with no mouse input. You can rebind the keys or use a game-pad. Another detail that may annoy some people is that the game is incredibly laced with anime, from the artwork and text the game has a somewhat cutesy feel to it that may drive away some players.

With these complaints said I still enjoyed Recettear and would like to see more games like this. Currently I finished the main game and tempted to play through endless mode a little to see what I can find. Lastly I wish one of the upgrades I could get would be a bouncer to keep that damn purple haired b*@tch out of my store who wants 500% base value for a fishbowl.

Josh

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Recently I started thinking about ways designers can broaden the appeal of their games. One popular way is to simplify mechanics or systems however if done incorrectly it can be seen as dumbing down. The funny part is that both terms mean the same thing but one is praised while the other is criticized. This leads me to today’s important question that I will try to answer “can you differentiate between the two without going to opinion?”

The challenge is that when we talk about these two decisions it can be hard to separate analysis from opinion. I remember with Deus Ex: Invisible War that the designers thought they were making the game better by introducing a single universal ammo type for all weapons as opposed to different ammo for each gun. The fan base however thought differently and criticized them for dumbing down the game. First off, I want to try to define both concepts in my opinion as separate entities.

Simplify: Either to present a game mechanic or system in another way or to reduce the complexity needed to understand the mechanic.

Dumb-down: To outright remove the mechanic or reduce the # of decisions the player can make while playing.

I think the best way to explain this is with an example; going back to Deus Ex IW for a minute the goal of the designers was to not have the player worry about ammo consumption, which leads to the decision of a universal ammo supply. However outright removing the player’s decision about ammo leads to the cry of dumbing down, but I can think of a way of appeasing both groups.

Let’s say that instead of the ammo supply being used for all guns that it is instead the material needed to create new ammo. For example five blocks of ammo can be used to create a twelve round clip of pistol ammo. Now let’s say that we could use seven blocks of ammo to create stronger bullets that do +3 damage to enemies, or use three blocks to create weaker bullets that do -3 damage to enemies. Suddenly we took the concept of ammo consumption and simplified it yet still give the player choice in the matter. As long as the player has a supply of ammo they don’t have to worry about running out of bullets, rockets, etc when they can just fashion more of it.

To quote Sid Meier a game “is a series of interesting choices” and if you outright remove them your game is most likely going to suffer. Having a lot of choices is not the same as having meaningful choices. If you have options A, B, C and D and A is always the right choice then you are really not giving the player a set of options.

Another domain where this discussion is constantly applied is the turned based strategy genre or more specifically the 4X style (expand, exploit, exterminate and explore). These titles are some of the most complex games out there and one of the major challenges for any designer is to try to attract gamers to their titles without turning away the existing fan base.

The challenge is that the designer is left with a “balancing spinning plate” situation for each game system. If every game system is not balanced or designed right then the entire game suffers from it. For example if you have a convoluted economy system that the players can’t figure out, then they won’t be able to build military units and the combat portion of your game will suffer. Is there some magic equation for determining how to simplify your game perfectly? Probably not or it would make the life of many designers easier.

Last year Solium Infernum was one of the few 4x TBS titles that I enjoyed but dear Lucifer it was a hard game to learn. The mechanics of the game were complex and you really had to learn everything at once as the game systems would not make sense if you tried to take it one at a time. Throw in a less than ideal UI for beginners to give the game the standard mountain sized learning curve. To its credit SI is the first game that I ever wrote a multi part beginner’s guide for.

When it comes to 4x titles in my opinion the designer should strive to condense each system to one screen’s worth if information. What I mean is instead of having to look at three screens to determine how much money I’m making, control my tax rate and set import and export that information should be able to fit on one screen. Now this should not be set in stone as sometimes you do have to spread things out to avoid information overload, also it is very important that if two systems or screens deal with the same mechanic or decision that they should both show the vital information regarding that system.

Going back to SI one thing that annoyed me to no end about the UI had to do with buying rituals and machine diagrams. Basically you can buy sections of these items at the communal store and then assemble them to give yourself powerful buffs or skills. The problem is that the diagrams in the set are easiest to distinguish by which number in the set it is. However you can’t view what parts of the set you have at the store, only in your inventory. Meaning that you will be jumping back and forth needlessly between two screens to make sure that you are not buying a duplicate; this could all have been avoided if you mouse over the item in the store and it comes up saying if you have this already and what parts you need.

I’ve spent the majority of this post talking strategy titles and to conclude things I want to briefly touch on the action genre. You can have this type of discussion with the action genre even though it is nowhere near as complex as a strategy game. For example one of the best examples of simplifying in my opinion was the lack of a jump button in the Zelda series; instead Link will automatically leap off of an edge if he has enough momentum. I think this was a great decision as it still requires the player to aim in the right direction and removes the player having to time their leaps.

It’s hard to give examples of dumbing down in action games as many titles rarely have sequels or complex mechanics. An overall example I can give are actions titles that only have one attack button and the only combo in the game is hitting that button three times in a row.

It is important as a designer to understand when to make things complex and when to make things easier. Hitting the player over the head with multiple design systems, equations with a less than stellar UI can be just as bad as telling the player that the entire game-play amounts to “Press A to win”

Josh

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