I have played a lot of games in my time and have a memory of more game systems and mechanics that could be considered healthy. Looking back I’m noticing a trend of some of my favorite games and how one game system is present. Today I’m going to examine that system and pour out my love for it.

“Home Base” which I’m calling it will be defined for this entry as the following:

A system that subsists with the main game system offering an additional layer of progression

I think my love for this system comes from my background of enjoying city builders. I’ve played the genre since Sim City 2000 and always loved building my city, getting everything up and running and so on. What the home base system is, in essence is like having a partial city builder in your game.

Let’s get into a bit more detail with that. Many titles feature a linear progression, you go from level 1 to level 2, you go from fighting rats to monsters etc. Having a home base mechanic gives you a circular progression. For example I go into the woods and kill monsters and recover materials that I use to improve my town to get better equipment that I use to go further in the woods.

By going out into the woods and fighting I clear up the area and at the same time get materials that I use to improve my city which in turn allows me to go further when I’m out fighting. Both systems are used independently of each other however both systems use the other to progress.

At this point it should become clear that the home base system only exists in multi system games. Games that are pure action or all RPG most often don’t have a home base system. There is also one other criteria that needs to be further explained.

Even if the game does have multiple systems, in order for the home base mechanic to exist both systems must improve and subsist off of the other. The best way to give an example of when this doesn’t happen would be with one of my favorite games of all time.

Star Control 2 while I love it does not meet the home base criteria even though you have a home base to return to. The reason comes from the interaction between the two, the star-port’s functions are to refuel your ship, outfit it and build new ships. While you do use the materials you find in space and combat to afford this you are not making the star-port better. Nothing I do in combat will make my star-port any better; I can’t get better crew members or upgrade the port. Instead the relationship is one way, the port makes my combat and exploration better but by doing better in combat and exploration I don’t make the port better.

With that said it’s time to talk about some recent examples of this type of interaction.

Little King Story (Wii): LKS for the Wii was an interesting blend of the action strategy game mechanics from Pikmin along with light city building. In the game you take your army of conscripted citizens into the wild collecting treasure which can be used to improve your town. By making your town better you’ll be able to collect more taxes and get upgrades for your citizens which allow them to fight better when you take them outside. I do wish that there was more to do on the city building aspect as you are just plopping down buildings but it was enough for me to enjoy the game.

Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker (PsP): Currently I’m working on an analysis of this game so I’m just going to highlight its home base mechanic. By capturing soldiers in the field they can be recruited back at Snake’s base and put to different tasks, such as going out into the world to do missions, providing recovery for soldiers or researching new gear for Snake. Like LKS the home base mechanic is not completely fleshed out but it does offer more to do then your standard sneaking mission.

Hinterland (PC): I absolutely loved Hinterland, yes it was buggy and designed for a bargain price but it hit almost all the correct buttons for me. One part city builder and one part action RPG I enjoyed Hinterland despite its faults. I really wish that Tilted Mill was still around (the designers) as I would snatch up a Hinterland 2 in a second.

It seems rare these days to see games with home base systems as it does in a sense distract from the main game. There is however one final example of a game that I have to talk about as it is not only the best example of this but it also belongs to what is considered to be one of the greatest PC games of all time.

X-Com UFO Defense is a game that needs no introduction at this point. Released in 1994 the game has built a reputation of greatness that not even later games in the series could upset. There is so much that X-Com got right that for the sake of turning this entry into a book I’m going to leave out and instead focus on the home base.

There are three main systems in X-Com, turned based strategy combat, isometric base building and aerial combat. I’m going to ignore the latter for this entry and focus on the first two. You have complete freedom in running your base along with building it. Depending on how you place your rooms determines the floor plan if your base is attacked. On the management side of things you recruit people and buy basic equipment. You determine what equipment your base produces along with researches for new technologies.

Going into the field you choose what squad members to take along with their equipment. Out in the field you have to choose between incapacitating aliens to bring them back for study and just killing them. Depending on how much damage you do on the field and whether you capture or destroy the ship will determine the materials you bring back. These materials will be used to manufacture more equipment to make the fighting easier.

As you can see both these systems subsist off of each other, without going into the field you won’t get the money and materials needed to improve your base and by not making your base better you will lack the tools and manpower to effectively fight the aliens. The integration of all three systems delivered an amazing experience which few games were able to replicate well.

Multi system games done right have always been a favorite of mine and I am a sucker for games that feature a home base game system. The sense that no matter what I’m doing is making progress in the game is a great hook to keep the player motivated to continue. Besides we all need some place to store our war trophies after a huge battle.

Josh.

P.S. Happy early Thanksgiving.

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No Heroes Allowed is not only the third in a niche series on the PSP (and available on the PSN) but it is also the third re-branding of the series in the US. Originally it was Holy Invasion of Privacy Badman: What Did I do to Deserve This? (yes that was the title), then it just became What Did I do to Deserve This? Now with No Heroes Allowed this is the first time that Sony is publishing the game and at a cheaper price as well. After spending time with it I can say that it is good to be the bad guy once in awhile.

To give my fingers a break I’ll be referring to the new game as NHA and the first two games as WDT 1 and 2. For the newcomers in all three titles you play as the “God of Destruction” which just so happens to be a floating pick-ax. You have been summoned by the evilest creature in the world: Badman who has one goal, to take over the world. To do that he needs a JRPG villain’s dream dungeon to stop all those annoying heroes from capturing him.

Game-play in all three titles boils down to you carving out a dungeon from blocks in the ground. Some blocks have nutrients in them, when broken will create a monster. Depending on how many nutrients are in one tile will determine if a level 1,2 or 3 creature is created with the higher the level the stronger the creature. Level one creatures will take nutrients from one block and distribute it to another. Common strategy would suggest that having nothing but level 3 creatures would work, however there is a twist here that makes things interesting.

The creatures of the world fit into an Eco-system with the lower level creatures as food for the higher level. If you don’t have enough lower creatures in your dungeon the higher creatures will starve before the heroes come to fight. You do not control any of the monsters; instead they go about their business. Besides monsters from nutrient blocks, there is also a 2nd food chain with mana which appears when a hero dies in a dungeon or uses a spell. Advance players can also use level 3 tiles to summon demons to the dungeon which provide buffs to your other creatures.

After a certain amount of time has elapsed heroes will arrive to the dungeon and begin cutting a path of destruction to get to Badman. If the heroes die before they take Badman out of the dungeon then you win. After each stage you can upgrade your monsters giving them better stats.

The series has evolved considerably since WDT 1, in the first game you had just a set of stages in a row and once you finished it you won. WDT 2 expanded on this and introduced multiple worlds, each world was itself a set of stages that the player must complete in a row to finish that world. Evolution was added with WDT 2 as well, if the population of a species of monsters drops considerably either through being killed, eaten or starvation they will evolve into a different variation of that monster for the remainder of the stages.

NHA has all the mechanics of the last two and introduces a few more. First is that your pick-ax can unleash a special ability at the cost of dig power. You can also unlock other ones each with their own unique ability. The biggest change is the inclusion of water; certain blocks can be destroyed to unleash a flood in your dungeon. When the water becomes stagnant blocks that have either nutrients or mana will spawn lily pads that can be used to spawn more monsters in your dungeon. Water monsters can’t exist on land and vice versa for land monsters. Water monsters also follow the same rules of evolution giving you another concept to juggle.

NHA like the previous titles look very simple from the outside, however there is a lot to digest here. The juggling act of carving space, keeping your population growing and more will keep you busy. NHA features an expanded tutorial along with bite sized dungeons you can play when the story mode has you down.

Let’s talk about the bad news, the biggest problem I have with NHA is the same that I have with the previous titles. The learning curve at the start is set really high due to the mechanics. While the tutorials do a good job of teaching you each system one at a time, it doesn’t help you in the main game when you are dealing with everything at once.

Due to how each world is set up as a series of levels, it is very hard to dig yourself out of a hole (no pun intended). If I do a great job on stages one to five then blow it on stage six losing the majority of my monsters it is very hard to come back from that.

Normally this would be the part that I would put on my game designer cap and figure out how to alleviate the learning curve problem, but this time I’m stumped. NHA is designed for the player to have access to all the systems and mechanics at once and the structure of the game would break down if certain elements were restricted. For example it would really screw the player if they only had up to level 2 monsters available for certain # of worlds.

Heroes are also put into this balance with different types that have different strengths or weaknesses, cutting one of the elements out of a world would require major re-balancing of the levels to make sure that the available mechanics will allow the player to beat all the stages.

Learning how to play NHA is like taking a cooking class and at the same time being told that you have to prepare a five star meal. Still with that said for $10 I can easily recommend this game. The added modes and systems along with difficulty settings give a lot of bang for your buck.

Josh

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I’ve been waiting for Etrian Odyssey 3 to come out for some time having fallen in love with the series since the first one. In some cases EO3 is more of the same, but it is a unique form of more of the same.

EO3 is of course the third in the Etrian Odyssey series that is on the Nintendo DS. A simple explanation would be a Japanese take on old school CRPGs, big on customization small on grand epic stories with thirty minute cut scenes. Once again you must create a custom party of adventurers to brave a massive dungeon for fame, fortune, and various monster appendages to create better equipment. From the start returning fans will find new choices available to them.

One criticism fans had about EO2 was that you had the same classes from EO 1 present with three new ones. EO3 however wipes the slate clean with brand new classes. What I love about the EO series is how the developers get as far away from traditional RPG classes as best they can. There is no standard “warrior, mage, cleric, thief” class in EO3 and it will throw gamers for a loop on how to create their party. I’m not going to break down every class but a few standouts from my group would be:

Ninja: Can create a full clone of themselves that effectively gives you a six member who given the right skills can sacrifice that clone to do massive damage.

Buccaneer: (Yes I have a pirate and a ninja on my team) Can learn “chase” skills that allows them to follow up teammates’ attacks with one of their own. Combine that with my ninja’s clone and I have him attacking twice per turn.

The amount of possible party combinations is staggering, as by not having to rely on the standard archetypes you are free to experiment and not be horrifically at a disadvantage by not having a spell caster on your team. Going further into customization there is a great deal of freedom with your parties’ skills.

Like in the previous EO titles, leveling up will get you a skill point that can be used to further enhance your team. You can either unlock new skills to use or improve an already unlocked skill. With EO3 the designers have done an excellent job in balancing out each class’s tree. There is not one perfect way to develop your characters and you’ll have to think about how they fit with your other teammates to get the most mileage out of them. Later on you’ll unlock subclasses which allow you take another classes’ skill tree and add it to each party member further increasing your possible options.

Moving on let’s talk about dungeon crawling; another staple of the EO series is drawing your own maps for the dungeon. Using the touch screen you can draw walls, place icons and basically make your own references for the dungeon. At this point it has become one of the main elements of the design of the game and hard to argue against it. You do get a sense of accomplishment for having the entire floor mapped out and knowing where exactly everything is.

Combat has remained for the most part unchanged, everything is turned based as you’ll trade blows with the denizens of the dungeon. The FOEs (aka mini bosses) have returned to make your life a living hell. Chances are your first FOE encounter will be met with failure.

One new mechanic for combat is the “limit” system. In EO 2 after fighting enough battles to fill a gauge you can then use a class specific “super move” to even the odds. EO 3 has removed that and replaced it with the limit system. As you play through the game you’ll unlock these skills, there is a lot of variety with the limits; some will buff your team, others will do damage to your enemy.

Each limit has a requirement of so many members of your team must have the same limit equipped to use. For example the cross slash skill that does a decent amount of damage to one enemy requires two members for it to be used. One important detail to mention is that using the limit skill does not count as that character’s turn for the round so it pays to use them as a great way to help with your fights.

Besides the dungeon you can explore the ocean as a sort of side quest. From the town you outfit your ship with provisions (determines how many moves you can make) and equipment which provide benefits or allows you to get past obstacles. After that you can explore and map the ocean, along with finding new towns and locales. When you discover a new location you can then play a quest there, which you can tackle with either AI partners or with your friends. The quests are just fights but they are different enemies then in the dungeon which keeps things from getting too stale.

The problems with EO3 are mostly unchanged from previous entries. This game is hard, expect death quick and early on, in fact most gamers will likely see the game over screen on the first floor. The new classes force everyone from newcomers to veterans of the series to start fresh with designing their team. The strength of not having standard archetypes also raises the difficulty curve.

Grinding is the way of life in EO 3, as bosses hit hard expect to spend time wandering the halls of floors wiping out every enemy you can for experience. On the positive side players will now receive experience from killing F.O.E.s and completing quests. Each area is concluded with a tough as nails boss fight which will most likely send groups back into the lower floors to level up before repeated attempts.

For fans of the Etrian Odyssey series #3 is a welcome return and for those that missed out on the last two, there are enough changes to the formula that you won’t be at a disadvantage starting out here.

Josh.

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Once again showing my age, back in the pre-internet days, there was no such thing as YouTube videos showing a game walk-through. Back then if you got stuck at a section in a game you had to hope for either a walk-through printed in a magazine, or someone stumbling across a cheat code. Back then many games did not have cheats like “God mode” or infinite health instead a third option became available.

Game Genie was a handy device for us gamers that the developers despised. It was a device that got attached to whatever cartridge you had (yes I had a Nes, Snes, and Genesis Game Genie). When you turned on the console you were presented with the Game Genie’s interface, from here you would enter in codes from a book that came with the device that listed numerous cheats for specific games. After entering the codes you wanted (or hit the limit) you start the game with those cheats in affect.

The reason developers hated it was that you were basically legally hacking the cartridge and changing the programming to introduce these cheats into the game. With the popularity of sites like gamefaqs and YouTube that gamers can turn to for help, these devices have lost their popularity. Today’s entry is all about cheating in games and the different variations of it.

In my opinion cheating at a video game can be broken down into four categories. Let’s start with “cheat codes”, not to be confused with the same codes featured with Game Genie. These are codes left in or added by the designer and can have a variety of affects. The most famous example would be the Contra code which I can recite at will at anytime.

The two most popular ways to find a cheat code these days is either through a guide either printed or online, or have it unlocked in game. Many titles feature a variety of cheats that are unlocked through progress in the game. Recently EA has been allowing gamers to buy cheats to be used in their games which really don’t sit right with me.

First is that using money to buy an in game advantage like that is a big no-no in my book. Second I can’t help but think that games could be design to force players to buy these cheats by making things unfair for the gamer. You should not need to use cheats to get through a game these days and it feels that they are hurting the design of their games by allowing this option for someone to not learn the game and instead buy their way through it.

Personally I don’t use that many cheat codes and never really fell in love with cosmetic changes like big head mode or different character models. I think this goes back to my love of challenge in games which is why I don’t use things like infinite health.

Moving on to #2 we have “hacking”. For this entry hacking will be defined as:

The player using an outside program to gain an advantage in a game.

Commonly seen in multi player games hackers can ruin a legitimate player’s fun. There are many ways to hack a game such as having an aim-bot in a FPS or giving your character infinite health. Unlike cheat codes, designers are not fond of this and most designers take measures to prevent hacking. Many games have a zero tolerance for hacks and many gamers have been banned because of it.

While hacking is more popular with multi player games there was some news last month that Blizzard banned accounts of people who hacked the single player game for achievements. This is the first time I’ve heard of this action taken for a single player game. Blizzard used the argument that hacking the single player gave players achievements which would be displayed by everyone.

 On one hand it was under Blizzard’s right to stop this from happening but I can’t help but feel that their time could have been better spent making sure that the multi player side of things weren’t hack able

Next we have “exploits” which I’ll define as:

The player using in game bugs or poor design to give themselves an unfair advantage in a game.

This one is a bit hard to explain. Here is an example that I dealt with and hopefully this will explain it. In Left 4 Dead’s “No Mercy” campaign there was a bug on the third map that allowed the player to shove a door that would normally open by pressing a button on the other side of the wall, after hitting it enough times the door would break.

This allowed gamers to skip the crescendo event and while they are doing it they are in an easily guarded spot. During multi-player games many groups used this to skip the dangerous event to get an advantage in the game.

Exploits are a very “grey” topic. Most often the designers won’t know that they existed until after someone discovers it and it starts to spread among the community. Unlike hacks there is nothing in the EULA about it as the player is not using any outside influence to gain the advantage. Instead they are using what the designers provided in such a way to give them an advantage.

Another issue is that it’s hard to distinguish what could be considered a game mechanic and what is an exploit. For example in Starcraft 2 Zerg players have the trick that allows them to have more drones in play then their supply allows by creating extractors and then cancelling them and getting the drone back.

 Technically it is an exploit as the player is using a loop hole to get an advantage, on the other hand the player has to time it so that they are doing this within the correct time frame or it will not give them a huge benefit which makes it a game mechanic. At this point it’s safe to say that Blizzard sees it as a mechanic as it has been in since the beta I believe.

My final category is where cheating can be encouraged by the designer, for this one I’m using the term “breaking” and defining it as this:

 To play a game at such a high level that it renders the challenge the designers intended pointless.

A few months ago I put up an entry about the different skill levels that a gamer can play a game at and how a good designer can build the game systems around this. Breaking a game is done at the expert level, the gamers who go for 100% completion and speed runs and such.

For example in the 3D Mario games (N64 and forward) there are many examples of challenges that a player who has mastered the triple jump, into a wall jump can get past without going the normal route. Speed runs through games require this high level of play to know exactly how to get through each section the quickest way possible.

RPGS are excellent examples of breaking; one popular term is “min-maxing”. For the uninitiated, min-maxing refers mainly to stat base progression and it is the player putting the absolute minimum of value to get the maximum value out of it.

For example let’s take a game that the player can put points into “strength” which affects physical damage. The player can have a strength value between 1 and 99. Through testing we find out that at 56 points of strength the player will have the most affect on doing damage and anything above that only gives a minimal increase at best.

Now using that example, let’s say that a player does the same thing for the other attributes as well, by doing that the player will create a perfect character that can do everything equally well. I remember seeing guides to The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion on how to do just that, along with creating a cloak that renders the player completely invisible to the NPCs of the world.

Playing at this level depending on the personality of the gamer can lessen the enjoyment of the game. There are several RPGs that I’ve played that I specifically did not min-max or build the perfect team composition because I still wanted to be challenged. Also with personality it is not inherently better/wrong to play games like this.

To me it’s like two different people appreciating music in their own way. One person listening to the emotions the song brings out and the other one listening to the technical aspects, such as if the quality of the music is good, do all the instruments gel well and so on. Neither way is the absolute “best way” to listen to music, they are just options available.

One of the best examples of breaking comes from Disegea which was mentioned in my blog entry I linked earlier. What I loved about it was that the game featured numerous sub systems that the player can choose how far they can go into each. To beat the main quest they can just run through the normal maps and just touch the surface of these systems.

However if they want to beat the post game content then they will need to dive head first. Also the earlier they start playing with these systems it will make the main game ridiculously easy. At one point during my play-through my level 50 characters were as strong as level 100 characters from what I did.

Before I sign off I have a few more points I want to discuss about breaking. First is that this term generally only applies to single-player games. The reason is that for this kind of play you have to be dealing with set constants, playing against a human opponent is different than playing against an AI of course.

Second is that the design of the game has to be built around this concept and that it can’t be introduced by the player alone. What I mean is that becoming a master at a game is not good enough; there must be something in game that allows you to make use of those skills to get around what the designers originally intended.

For example in Ninja Gaiden Black, no matter how skilled you are at the game, you will still need to face every challenge; there are no tricks or short cuts that allow you to skip a section.

The act of cheating in games has changed throughout the years, from being mistakes in the code to rewards for the player. As games have grown so have the ways people can circumvent the designer’s intent. With the evolution of digital marketplaces and platforms like Steam or the new Battle.net it will be interesting to see how it will affect the future of cheating.

Josh

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