I am very bad at creating “best of” list due to all the games I’ve played; I always have trouble narrowing down my list. With that said there are few games that always find their way to the top, such as X-Com. Star Control 2 is the only reason why I still have a 3dO hooked up in my living room and is one of the best games I’ve played.

Long before Grand Theft Auto teased gamers with the idea of exploring an open world, Star Control 2 gave us the entire universe. The story is that a big intergalactic war took place between a good group of alien races and the bad guys. Earth decided to side with the good guys but unfortunately they lost, reducing the races into slaves for the bad guys. The player is part of a lost expedition who inhabited a mysterious world where they found the means to produce a starship. The game begins with the player arriving back in our Solar System to find the Earth encased in an anti escape field.

The overall objective of the game is to save the universe (or more specifically Earth) from the bad guys. To do that you’ll have to explore the entire universe for resources, allies and new technology to give you a fighting chance. After a brief introduction you’ll have the entire universe open with the only limitation is your fuel supply.

There were three main systems present in the game. First is controlling your flagship. Whenever you are in hyperspace or in a solar system you’ll be controlling your ship. Your ship’s speed and turning ability are based on turning jets and thrusters that you can outfit your ship with. When you’re in hyperspace you can bring up a star map of the universe to determine your course. Each second moving in hyperspace uses up fuel and if you run out you’ll be left stranded.

Near Earth is a space station that acts as your home base. This is where you can buy fuel and outfit your ship with new parts. In order to afford these upgrades you’ll need resource units or RU which is where system two comes in.

As you explore you’ll come across planets where you can send a lander down to the surface to search for minerals and alien life. Planets are varied with some more dangerous than others; of course the dangerous planets have the better minerals but you’ll risk losing your lander. Planets that have alien life can be harvested for research that can be sold to an alien trader to get special technologies like better weapons.

The last system is the actual combat. Whenever you meet a hostile ship either in hyperspace or in a solar system you’ll have to fight to survive. Combat is arcade style with the ships fighting on a 2d plane. Each species in the game has its own unique ship style, differing in terms of special attacks and stats. The # of crew members aboard dictate the health of the ship and once depleted the ship is destroyed. If you have multiple ships in your fleet, you will decide which one will fight first. At the start of the game your flagship will be very weak but through upgrades it can become very powerful. However if your flagship is destroyed it is game over.

Similar to X-Com your actions don’t exist in a vacuum and there is a time limit to deal with. Eventually the two biggest alien races will have a war with one of them winning which leads to a mass genocide of the Universe. Once the Earth gets destroyed you will lose the game.

That last story theme is one of the problems (or flavors) of old school design. There is no quest log here and you’ll have to be prepared to take notes or have a really good memory. When talking with alien races they may throw out the name of a star system for you to explore which leads to several minutes of scouring the star map looking for the elusive sector.

Trying to balance out saving everyone with getting your ship power up is one of the challenges of the game. During one of my plays my flagship became very powerful but in the process I took too long and one of the alien races was destroyed. The designers knew about this conundrum and made upgrades for your ship costly requiring the player to decide when to help the other races and when to explore.

What I find interesting is that there are several design similarities between Star Control 2 and X-Com. Both titles have unique game-play based on three different game systems. X-Com had base building, ship combat and turned base combat. Both titles also play with the concept of having to deal with time constraints. In X-Com you only had so long once an alien ship has been detected to get to it before it goes away. Also eventually Earth will have multiple alien bases and you will start to lose your funding.

One element that hurts Star Control 2’s re-playability is that the universe is always set up the same way. After a few games you’ll know where the quality systems are which cuts down on the exploration. While in X-Com battles and enemy attacks are always randomized.

Another area where both these games exist is that I have yet to actually beat either one. Joining them on this list would be Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne as games that I want to finish at some point. For those interested in trying out Star Control 2 you have several options other than buying a 3DO.There is a freeware version of the game that has been out for several years which you can find here. Good Old Games just released a two pack of Star Control 1 and 2 available from their website.

There is a Star Control 3 out there but I have been advised by people to deny its existence and have no experience with that one.

Josh

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As game design has evolved over the years one element seems to be fading away, the use of paper manuals and in some cases the use of any manual. There was a time where you couldn’t figure out how to play a game without the use of a manual as well as massive manuals such as the ones used for the flight simulator genre.

This past year two big shakeups happened, first was the announcement that Civilization 5 would not have a paper manual; instead the game would use an online wiki that would be updated with changes from patches. The other change was EA announcing that there games would no longer come with any paper manuals and only viewing them online would be possible.

In many ways this is a positive in my opinion as it means that games are getting easier to understand, on the other hand there is a danger in moving too fast. My thoughts on how game design has become easier to understand has already been posted so I’m going to link back to that entry so I’m not repeating again.

Back in the 80s and mid 90s there was no such concept of having a tutorial in a game, first because a lot of games were simplistic enough not to warrant one. The second issue in my opinion would be no one was sure how to design one or perhaps the technology wasn’t set up yet, I’m not completely sure on this point. In the war game genre they created tutorial scenarios which were written down in the manual detailing how the game works and giving the player commands to follow in the scenario. I found this concept of having to switch back and forth between game and manual annoying.

Let’s talk about the pluses of this movement first. One of the chief complaints about manuals is that with the move to more digital content manuals become outdated fast. Blizzard with Starcraft 2 has done considerable shakeups to the unit statistics and in some cases special abilities with patches which you would not know about from reading the manual.

Of course MMOs have to be mentioned, World of Warcraft has become a much different place from when it was at launch. The idea of having an updated online tool such as with Civ 5 was a great idea. On the console side the tutorials do a better job of explaining the basics to the player compared to the manual in my opinion. I’ve always been a visual person which is why I personally find it easier this way.

I do have some problems with this move to digital, first is that there is more to learn in a game that a tutorial can provide. Tutorials are set up to teach the player the basics of a game but they do not get into advance mechanics as to not overload the player. The issue is that if there is no manual then where can the player learn about the more complex things in the game?

With Left 4 Dead 1 and 2, while Valve did a great job of teaching the co-op mode to players via the intro movie and tool tips they did a horrible job with vs. mode. Playing as the special infected in L4D is a completely different experience compared to the survivors which Valve does not give any info on how to play. Basic tool tips were not enough as it doesn’t say anything about working together or the specific roles of the special infected.

Playing with newcomers I can just see how lost they are trying to get accustom to the new game-play. I’ve been tempted in the past to write up guidelines on how to play the SI for my steam group to help newcomers out. If L4D had a manual it should have had a lengthy section on vs. mode.

Another case where the in game tutorial was not enough is with Brutal Legend. The game starts off as a third person open world game but later on the game becomes more about third person real time strategy combat. While the game tells you the basic controls it does not go into detail about most of the mechanics present. The main one being the rock paper scissors balance. The player has no idea what units are better than other units until they watch one unit completely tear apart their army.

The manual that came with the game has no mention of this and only has brief comments on each unit. If this game was made a few years ago the manual would have been several times larger detailing all the units.

I believe that there is still a role for game manuals. Instead of being used to introduce the players to the game it could be used as a reference. Two things that would be great to list in the manual would be advance mechanics and the back story or flavor text.

An example of this style would be the Grand Theft Auto manuals, each one of their manuals features very little actual information about the game and instead is set up as a tour guide for whatever city the game takes place in. They instead use the opening missions as the tutorial for the game.

One of my favorite game manuals that I read was Starcraft 1, each side had a section devoted to it that featured: A multi-page prologue detailing how they came to be, all the units and researches along with flavor text about them and a list of the various clans or groups related to it. As you can guess I was dismayed when I opened up the Starcraft 2 manual to find nothing more than a cliff’s note version of “last time on Starcraft”.

A few years back I saw a reverse of this situation with the game Divine Divinity, the manual was in standard form featuring the mechanics and everything but the game disc had a file that detailed the entire back story.

In today’s world it is easy to skimp on the manual thanks to all the improvements made to game design however depending on the complexity of your game a simple tutorial may not be enough. There should be a section that allows advance players and number crunchers a chance to really dive into the game mechanics. The idea of a constantly updated online manual intrigues me and is something I would like to see developed further especially for the strategy genre.

Lastly I do hope that the concept of a manual is not completely erased as I really want to see more designers have mini design diaries featured similar to what Soren Johnson wrote at the end of the Civ 4 manual.

It feels like fewer games these days require a manual and I am curious to see how this trend will develop. Although I will miss the days of having 100 plus page manuals with mechanics, list of skills and a back-story the size of a small novel.

Josh.

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There are two things that are very dangerous to my wallet: after action reports and SRPGs. After reading about this on Quarter To Three along with the praise from various reviewers I broke down and picked this up. What I found is currently my best surprise of 2011 so far and one of the best SRPGs I’ve played in awhile.

First some back story, back during the Snes era a series called Ogre Battle was released on the system. Ogre Battle was a strategy title in which squads of units fight other squads on a map. Similar to the Shin Megami Tensei series, Ogre Battle had a side story or secondary series released called Tactics Ogre. Of the side story the only games I’m aware of off the top of my head is the game this one is based off of and a GBA title released several years back.

The story is about the political status of the world as nations and resistance armies are fighting to shape it. I’m not going to spoil the story here but I do want to say that it is a fresh change of pace of dealing with a more serious story in a SRPG compared to the Disgaea series.

I did not play the original one so I don’t have that knowledge to go on. The first SRPG that I really got into was Disgaea on the PS2. For this one, the designers went back to the drawing board and modernize a lot of the design while adding new mechanics. Just looking at screenshots you won’t see anything too ground breaking but the devil is in the details.

First is improving your characters, after a battle is won two types of points are distributed to your party. Experience points are handed out on a class by class basis. Here classes level up instead of individual characters, meaning that if I take a level 7 archer and change them to a warrior that person will become whatever level my warrior class is. The lowest level class in your squad will get the biggest share of the experience allowing new classes to level up quicker. Also the class will level up quicker if you have multiple members of it in the same battle.

The second type of points is skill points or SP which is given to each individual character. SP is used for learning skills that can be equipped to the character. Skills run the gambit of support, weapon enhancing and unique class specific skills. Many skills only become available once the class has reached a certain level and you can only have at max ten skills equipped at once leaves a lot of room for customization.

Depending on what skills you assign to your characters will radically change their utility during combat. For example spell casters can go a jack of all trades route learning the various spells or just use one element and boost that with additional skills. If you decide to change the character to a new class they will retain the SP and skills learned, however any skills that were class specific cannot be equipped to the new class.

Combat also plays out differently compared to other SRPGS. Each unit on the field has an attribute related to how quick their turn comes up. The more actions the unit makes during their turn determines how long they have to wait until their next turn. Meaning someone who just attacks will have their turn come up sooner than someone who had to move before they attack.

The biggest change is the chariot system (named after the chariot tarot card) and how it affects the game. You have the power to rewind time to any of the last 50 turns made during combat. How it works is that if you perform the exact same action on the replay then the game will use the same rolls of the die to determine if all subsequent actions would count. However if you make just one change to your action the game will re roll to possibly give a new outcome.

For example let’s say a unit moves in front of an enemy and tries to attack and misses. The next turn the enemy scores a critical hit on that unit. Now if we rewind time and move that unit to the side of the enemy before it attacks this time the unit connects and when the enemy attacks it misses. As you can see this is very powerful and there is no penalty for using it. At this point you are probably thinking that this would make this one of the easiest games out there, well it’s not quite that simple.

The difficulty of the game is still high even with the power to rewind time. It comes down to how this game was designed, or in this case redesigned. In most SRPGs the concept is built around the individual units, making them as powerful as you can. In Disgaea you can take one character and build them into obscene levels of power that one unit can just brute force their way through every map. However with Tactics Ogre the game was built around the squad.

How you create your squad of units will dictate how easy or hard the game will be. There is never a point where one unit can be the dominate force on the map. Mages for instance, no matter how powerful they become will still die fast to someone getting into close range to attack. The game is about creating an effective squad of units, customized by you to take on the game’s challenges. This concept really threw me off having come from the Disgaea series where the game did not really test your ability at creating units.

With all the re balancing done there is only one part that I think the designers slipped up on: ranged combat. The problem is that in most cases it is too effective against everything else. There are three parts to this problem, first is how accurate bows are. Bows by default receive an attack and accuracy bonus the higher the archer is on the field. Combine with the accuracy up skill and it’s very hard to miss an attack. In ten hours of play I think my archer only missed one time.

Second is the damage potential. Against humanoid type enemies an archer can deal anywhere from 50-80 points of damage which to most characters is 1/3 or 1/2 their total health. Against lightly armored units like mages or clerics, two archers can finish them off before they have a chance to respond. The only times where archers are not useful is when going up against monsters like golems or dragons which have higher than normal defenses, however that just means that they can focus on the other enemies on the field.

The last issue is that it is next to impossible to avoid damage from it. With the accuracy skill in place most archers can attack with impunity against targets. Due to how the bows are fired you can’t block their arrows with your heavily armored units as they just arc the arrow. This means that your lightly armored units are always at risk and there is nothing you can do about it other than taking out the enemy archers first. There is a skill that gives your units a chance at dodging but the chance of it activating is low.

Does this hurt the game balance, yes but it doesn’t ruin the game. There is always a way to get around it and the variety of skills and abilities in game give you plenty of options. Other then that the only other nitpicks I have with the game are UI complaints. There is no try before you buy feature in stores and the interface for crafting items could have used some work considering how useful upgrading items is. You can only forge one item at a time which becomes tiresome when you need multiple copies of materials to craft in order to upgrade.

Tactics Ogre is easily a must play for the PsP; an example of how to do justice to a remake and a different style of SRPG.

Josh.

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Knights in the Nightmare is one of the strangest games I’ve played. A simple description would be a bullet hell shooter mixed with a SRPG. Everything about the game is unconventional and unique. This should be one of my favorite games of all time yet I can’t play more than a few levels before I get bored.

I’ve talked about KiN several times in the past but recently I had a chance to play it right after The World Ends With You, another unique RPG for the DS. After putting down KiN again I started to think about what these two games did differently from each other and how one of them is one of my personal favorites of all time and the other is one that I can barely get into.

1. Starts with a bang, ends with a whimper: When it comes to games with unique systems you have to prepare the player for the new rule set, whether that is in the form of a tutorial level, starting off small or gradually raising the difficulty. In KiN the game hits you over the head with everything from stage 1. The developers realized that the game was going to be complex so they gave you a tutorial and tip pages… about 138 tip pages.

The problems are that the game doesn’t grow past these mechanics and a trial by fire is not the best teaching tool. One of the mechanics in KiN is how everything degrades with use: weapons and your own units. The more time you spend using your tools the quicker they’ll burn out. It’s not good design to essentially give the player a time limit to learn the game. To be fair the game does give you a chance to replay levels for experience, however you will be using stock units and weapons and won’t be able to experiment here.

Contrast this with TWEWY, the game starts off gradually introducing the player to the mechanics of touch screen control, combat, dual combat and the use of equipment. From there the game expands these mechanics over the course of the game. The initial mechanics available are enough to hook the player and then develops them to keep the player interested.

One last detail regarding this point throwing the player into the game head first still works if you explain the main points of the game at the start. Demon’s Souls is a brutal game but it at least gives the player a twenty minute tutorial before letting them loose in the world.

2. Style over Substance: Another nail in KiN’s coffin is how a lot of these systems don’t serve a purpose for the actual game-play. After each stage of the game you have a variety of options available such as combining units or items. The problem is that these mechanics don’t seem to have a noticeable effect on the game-play.

The right way of having multiple optional systems in my opinion is that the main game should not be dependent on them but they should reward the player for using them. In Disegea for the PS2 the player has multiple ways of improving their weapons and characters that aren’t vital to completing the main game. However if the player decides to use them they will make the main game a lot easier and will help them if they want to complete the post game content.

Going back to TWEWY the multiple systems allow the player to fine tune their experience to make it as hard or as easy as they want. If you just want to play for the story, just set the game on easy keep your health at max and the game will be a cakewalk. On the other hand if you want a challenge, raise the difficulty, lower your health and you’ll be rewarded with better items and more experience to get you ready for the post game.

The more I play KiN the more I start to realize that while there are a lot of unique systems present, the actual game-play doesn’t use them. If I don’t have enough knights for a battle I’ll get a no name knight with its own equipment to use. All these different systems may serve a purpose for the ending but there isn’t anything here to keep me going.

Likewise fusing knights or items together doesn’t reward the player for using them in the main game compared to the systems in TWEWY and Disgaea. Reading further into the massive tip section there are a bunch of little details like super attacks and others that chances are most players won’t know they even existed without reading through the section.

In the end all the unique ideas and systems in KiN feel less like something that was put together on purpose and more like someone taking a bunch of ideas and throwing them against a wall to see what sticks. Contrast this to TWEWY where there is a sense of cohesion with how the mechanics are integrated with each other.

The issues between these two games come down to depth and complexity and how both games are on different ends of the spectrum. TWEWY is a game that past understanding the combat system isn’t that complex but has a lot of depth, while KIN has a lot of complexity with all the unique rules but not much depth to them.

I am a firm believer in depth over complexity in games. A few months ago I put up an entry talking about how game play has become streamlined over the years and I think some people got the wrong idea. I don’t want simplistic design. I want complex game-play driven experiences, but I don’t want to have to read a 100 page manual just to figure out how to start your game.

Another example would be how the adventure genre has changed from the early 90s. During the early days of graphic adventure titles, the games used a verb system to allow the player to interact with the world. If you want to open a door for example you would first open your pocket, pull out a key, use the key on the lock, then pull the door knob to open it up.

Today with adventure titles like the ones from TellTale Games, you open your inventory, select a key, use it on the door, and then click on the door to go through it. While the concept of using verbs as a means of interaction hasn’t changed, they have been moved to the engine side and away from the player.

An example on the other end of spectrum would be the war game genre. Some of the most complex games out there fall into this genre with games like Steel Panthers: World of War or the Combat Mission series (and the dozens out there that I’ve never heard of). The learning curve is Mt. Everest size and it has been one of the sticking points that keep newcomers away. I’ll be honest I know there is a lot of complexity with the genre, however I don’t know if there is any depth there as I never managed to figure out how to play them.

There are many ways to reduce complexity in your game without removing depth. A clean UI and great controls are a good first step. As I mentioned earlier, TWEWY gives the player time to get accustomed to the game systems and introduces everything slowly. Presenting important information and giving the player an easy way to find what they’re looking for will also help. Tool tips can be a godsend, I just started playing Tactics Ogre on the PsP and at any point I can stop the game to pull up tool tips on anything on the screen.

Depth and complexity are not interchangeable concepts as evident by games like The World Ends With You and Knights in the Nightmare. Figuring out what parts of your design add depth and which ones just complicate the matter is important. I’m going to wrap things up here, however look for a continuation on this theme with a future entry when I’m going to examine the reduction of game manuals and its affect on design.

Josh.

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