It’s not often that I comment on other blogs or videos on game design but I’m going to make an exception today. One of my favorite series on The Escapist is “Extra Credits.” Each week they talk about game design and the industry as a whole. Many of their thoughts on design are the same that I had, and it feels good to hear that there are like minded individuals out there. One of their recent topics was on the issue of why we don’t have a legitimate video game award show in the US. Even though they have beaten me to the punch of talking about it, doesn’t mean that I haven’t been thinking about this for some time. Incidentally that began after watching the first Spike TV award show.

Over the last few years I’ve been dreaming up how I would create a mature show honoring video games. Before you read on, I suggest you watch the Extra Credits video I linked in the first paragraph, as many of my thoughts echo theirs. I agree that having celebrities for the sake of celebrities is wrong, I think we could drum up charismatic people in the industry to present and talk, like Ken Levine or Tim Schafer.

The big issue and question has to do with the awards themselves. For a legitimate show, we should avoid joke awards like “best head-shot” or “best breast physics in a game”. Out of a sense of morbid curiosity I watched part of the MTV movie awards and hearing categories like “best kiss” or “best hook-up” cemented this thought for our award show.

Another issue is how do we classify our games into the award categories? Movies can easily be categorized by their genre, like romance or action. However, games these days (especially the better ones) meld different game-play genres together to create something new. Uncharted 2 for instance, has plat-forming, adventure, puzzle-solving, multiplayer and shooting elements all mixed in. From previews of the latest Mass Effect game, while it still has some RPG elements, the designers are putting a greater emphasis on shooting and combat.

With that said, does that mean that a game like Mass Effect 3 would be eligible for “best RPG” and “best action game?” Personally, I think that a game should only be eligible for one “best of” award. Not only to have more games nominated, but also to diversify the list of winners. Besides having a “game of the year” award, I would also have a studio of the year as well.

Here is a list of all the awards I think would work in our award show:

Best Action Game
Best Strategy Game
Best Adventure Game.
Best Puzzle Game
Best RPG
Best Shooter
Best Multiplayer Game.
Best Sports Game.
Best Indie Game.
Best Handheld Game.
Best Writing In a Game
Best Sound Design In a Game
Best Original Game
Best Graphics (Realistic)
Best Graphics (Surrealistic)
Game Of The Year
Studio Of The Year
Game Designer of the Year

I’m conflicted on that last award, mainly because as we all know, a video game is a collaborative effort, with rare exceptions. However as the Movie industry has an award to the best director, I think to legitimize our awards, we do have to honor people who stepped up to create something amazing or never before seen. Also that list of awards is not set in stone, while typing up this entry I reedited the list several times as a new idea came to mind.

Video games have become a mainstream form of entertainment and being able to say that we have our own award show on par with the Oscars in the US, would be further proof of the effect the industry has on the World.

Josh.

P.S: No musical numbers.
P.P.S: Unless we get Video Games Live to perform.

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(My deal with publishing this review on another site has fallen apart, I’ll save that for a rant later on, here is the review in its entirety.)

In 2007, an unknown developer by the name of CD Projekt made a game that should have flopped in the US: The Witcher was a challenging action-oriented CRPG based on a Polish fiction series written by Andrzej Sapkowski where sex and violence abound. Despite these details, the game took off and became a surprise hit in the US; for me was one of my favorite RPGs to come out in some time. When a sequel was announced, I knew I couldn’t wait and pre-ordered several months in advance. I really wanted to fall in love with The Witcher 2, but after some initial playtime, I couldn’t help but be tempered by some critical, and not-so-critical, issues.

The Witcher 2 takes place one month after the end of the first game. Without spoiling things too much, Geralt is now employed by the king he saved at the end of The Witcher and finds himself pulled into a conflict. From there, things go from bad to worse as Geralt is implicated in a grand plot that has him escaping capture to prove his innocence.

The story and world of The Witcher 2 are well made. Like the first game, this is a dark fantasy world, where racial tensions between the various species are a constant undertone for the events in the game. Geralt’s journal, narrated by his friend, the bard Dandelion, fills in the blanks behind the world and the characters in it. There is a level of maturity here that is not normally seen in RPGs. What I like the most about The Witcher 2 is that there is rarely a “good or bad” choice. Everyone, including Geralt himself, exists in that grey area of morality, where they must deal with all the repercussions of their actions.

One returning element from the first game is the use of choice in the game’s plot. There are no morality sliders to judge Geralt’s actions; instead, the plot will change based on the player’s choices throughout the game. Choices range from deciding who lives or dies, to simply answering a question or two, with all decisions having repercussions – both short- and long-term. The game boasts 16 different endings and there is no doubt that no two playthroughs will be the same.

The most noticeable changes to the design come from the new combat system and character progression. In the first game, while the combat was real time, it was still more about stats and dice rolls. The only things the player could control were what style to put Geralt in (style affected damage potential) and clicking the mouse button in rhythm to the combat to create combos. In The Witcher 2, styles have been removed and the game has moved more towards an action game. Geralt can now dodge, block, use different bombs and signs (magic attacks) and his sword attacks have been simplified to a light and strong attack.

All these changes amount to combat being quicker and more demanding on the player. Unlike other RPGs, Geralt’s health and vigor (which controls how often the player can block or use signs) are regenerated after a battle is over without having to use recovery items. This allows the player to focus more on moving through the game, instead of slowing down to heal after each fight.

Progression has been altered, allowing the player to customize Geralt a lot more compared to the first game. There are four skill trees: Training, Alchemy, Magic and Swordsmanship. Every level, Geralt gets a talent point that can be applied to these trees. Training is the first tree and requires the player to spend at least six points on it before the other three unlock. The skills available radically change Geralt’s options in battle, such as enhancing your signs or unlocking the ability to counterattack. Each skill tree also offers a special attack that can be used once Geralt has accumulated enough adrenaline through combat.

I find having Geralt’s progression split this way offers a greater sense of customization compared to the last game, where there were certain skills that were almost required to have a chance at beating the game, such as the various styles , after leveling, increased their damage and combo duration. The further you go down your chosen skill tree, the more options open up for you. One other change I like is how all of Geralt’s signs are available from the start, instead of unlocking them gradually; this allows the player to integrate them into their combat strategy earlier in the game. From the beginning the player is tasked by the game to make use of all of Geralt’s talents, however, the game has a funny way of “teaching” the player about combat, and that is where my issues with the game begin.

Starting out, the game is tough for the wrong reasons. Geralt lacks ways of easily dealing with crowds of enemies and your signs don’t do much due to vigor restrictions. As the game goes on and you level Geralt up, the skills earned drastically reduce the difficulty of the game. Depending on which skill tree you focus on, you’ll either be able to slice through crowds easily, blast them with magic, or use your stat-enhancing potions and bombs to make life easier.

The backwards difficulty curve of the design does not help matters. From the start, the game constantly pits the player against groups of enemies without adequately explaining battle tactics. Nowhere in the game’s tutorial or manual does it explain how to deal with shield-wielding enemies and leaves the player to die figuring it out. Quick, one-paragraph blurbs pop up in an attempt to teach the player, but it’s hard to concentrate on them when most of them come up during a battle. One of the best examples of this design is that the first tutorial screen regarding leveling up does not mention the fact that the player has to rest to distribute the much-needed talent points.

Across the board, there is this general feeling of a lack of polish throughout the game. For instance, you can’t see how many of each ingredient you have when doing alchemy or how many items you have in reserve on your quick menu. The mini map doesn’t have a compass to help the player figure out which way they are going. The menus are obtuse with no way to sort items in your inventory. During combat I ran into plenty of situations where Geralt would not attack the person directly in front of him because the targeting cursor was stuck on an enemy further away. Certain areas require Geralt to avoid detection, using a less than adequate stealth mode. While none of these issues alone condemns the game, pooled together they create a frustrating environment that chips away at the quality of the experience.

There are several issues with the combat system that I noticed the more I played. One example is how some enemies will only engage Geralt if the player crosses an invisible threshold, and will automatically retreat when you move away from it, and come running when you move past it again. The decision to tie the attribute: Vigor to blocking, and start it very low (two points) was a poor choice. At the beginning of the game, where the player is assaulted by multiple enemies, they will run out of vigor within a few seconds of combat and be forced to take damage while trying to understand the combat system.

There is a basic combo system here: left clicking will launch Geralt at the targeted enemy after which you can chain attacks together. This is not mention in either the tutorial or manual. Geralt can only loot enemies if there are none nearby; however, once Geralt kills everyone, the game takes an additional 10 seconds to confirm it, dragging things down further. The combat flows well during fights with just one enemy or boss, when the player doesn’t have to worry about targeting and the loose controls; however, you rarely have these fights.

Another game-play complaint revolves around the use of potions to enhance Geralt. In the first game, you could drink potions at any time, with the only limitation being how much poison was present in Geralt’s body. This time, potions can only be used while mediating, meaning you can’t use them while in combat. I’m not a fan of this as it removes the element of being ready unless the player stays constantly intoxicated. It also feels like an unnecessary decision to slow the game down, requiring the player to stop what they are doing to take a drink.

I also ran into technical issues while playing the game, including a game-breaking bug. On my first playthrough, I decided to focus on making bombs; however, when Geralt would try to throw, the camera and controls would freeze. As this became more frequent, it made the game unplayable for me. After the first patch, the performance became so bad that I had to restart, losing about six hours of play and being forced to sit through the lousy prologue yet again. The recent patch has also brought about an increased issue with framerate dipping. These technical and design issues remind me of the first Witcher, which also had numerous flaws and bugs at launch, and the game didn’t hit its stride until the developers released “the enhanced edition.” The developers have been releasing major patches to the game; the first one removed the DRM in the retail version. With patch 1.2, combat has been given a fine tuning, along with the tutorial.

It’s a shame that the game has so many issues, because once you get past the first chapter and start to go up your preferred skill tree, the issues with difficulty begin to disappear. The opening battles in chapter 1 were more challenging then the first big fight of chapter 2. Mainly due to having Geralt’s signs improved allowing them to hit groups of enemies. At that point, I could finally stop feeling frustrated by the game and enjoy the story. I can see the glimmer of an excellent game; however, there are just too many issues for me to overlook to rate it that high. Hopefully, it won’t take long to fix the issues present with The Witcher 2, as that would turn a good game into an amazing one.

Josh.

(I’m also curious as to any impressions from this analysis ,as this was going to be my review).

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I find it funny when people use the term, “old-school” when talking about game design, as it is the only one I can think of that can be used both positively and negatively. Some titles strive to deliver that old-school feel, while others are condemn because of it. This leads to the point and question for this entry: what mechanics or design are considered old-school?

Several months ago I talked about how game design has become more streamlined and accessible over the years. During that entry I briefly touched on the theory that some elements of old-school design were in my opinion, either bad design or arbitrarily raising the difficult level of a game; for instance, a bad control scheme or hard to follow UI. Another example would be games that had no in game map whatsoever. I know that there are plenty of older gamers who are going to disagree with that last one, growing up with CRPGs that required graph paper to draw maps. However, this is going to be a point where we’ll have to agree to disagree.

With that said, I’m going to attempt to distinguish some of the positive mechanics of old-school design. First, is simply non linearity, whether that comes from progression in the story or available tactics to the player. Games like Demon’s Souls and Etrian Odyssey, give the player a variety of available options on how to progress in the game. In EO, there is no perfect party composition, and this is helped by having utility skills split across classes. While in Demon’s Souls, the player is free to improve their attributes however they wish and have three viable combat options with close, ranged and magic combat.

Depending on the type of gamer, challenge could be considered either good or bad for old-school design. Most games designed for that old-school feel, have enemies that are more than just a minor annoyance. In Ninja Gaiden Black , even the first enemy type you run into on normal can still take out the player if they aren’t paying attention. With Etrian Odyssey, mini bosses are scattered around the various floors with some so powerful that the player can’t take them on until returning to the floor several hours later.

With those high points mentioned, let’s talk about some downsides. Obscuring information comes in several forms with old-school design. It could mean anything from not telling the player what items or skills do, to hiding important information behind screens of text. There is a fine line between letting the player figure something out on their own and forcing them into a scavenger hunt for basic information.

Knowing how much information to give the player is always a challenge, as there are times that you don’t want to tell the player exactly what everything does. In the game: King of Dragon Pass, the player is required to make decisions base off of information, but is not told exactly how their choices will affect the village. This gives the game a unique feel to it, forcing the player to think like they are in the village instead of as a player using spreadsheets of information to determine the optimal route. This concept definitely deserves its own entry and I’ll be coming back to it at a later point.

The UI is a big deal when it comes to design; many older games use archaic UIs that make it hard to follow what is going on. I’m not going to spend too much time on this point as I’m already writing a separate entry on this.

As I lurked around the Internet after playing The Witcher 2, I kept seeing the same defense people threw out whenever someone had a problem with the game. That it was trying to capture that old-school charm with a bad UI, unresponsive controls not having a proper tutorial and so on. To me, that’s not having charm, that’s just simply bad design. Once again, an excellent example of this marriage between old school design and accessibility would have to be Demon’s Souls.

I know that I’ve been harping on Demon’s Souls for a while, but it is that good. For designers who want to see how to balance difficulty with accessibility, it is one of the best. My final example for this entry is a quick comparison between two RPGs.

Recently a new Wizardry game was released on the PS3 via PSN. For those like me who never played the series, it is another long lasting old school CRPG. I thought that I was going to enjoy it, much in the same way I loved Etrian Odyssey. However upon loading the demo, I found out that when they said “old-school” they really meant “old-school”.

The demo had no manual, no in game map, to create each party member I had to fiddle with stats until the game told me that I could create that character. The shop interface was obtuse and the final nail in the coffin came from a slow battle system. This was a game completely set in its ways, compared to Etrian Odyssey, which took the best parts of old-school design and tried to remove as much fluff as possible.

As game design continues to evolve, I can’t help but feel that the term “old-school” will begin to define more and more game mechanics. Who knows, perhaps someday, hiding behind cover to regenerate health, will be considered too old-school for the shooter market.

Josh

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This past weekend I started playing The Settlers 7, which I have a feeling a lot of gamers know it more about its DRM (Disc Rights Management) and less about the game. The DRM is in the form of Ubisoft’s launcher that loads with the game and requires a constant Internet connection to play it. The rage around the Internet was strong with this, from customer reviews to the Steam forums; people did not like the restriction. This also serves as a problem of getting accurate reviews, due to people focusing on the DRM much in the same way they did with Spore. With all the flaming going on it’s easy to miss the fact that The Settlers 7 is a decent game which leads me to the point of this entry: Talking about DRM.

I know that the next statement has been said to death, but it needs to be reiterated for this entry: Steam is a form of DRM. It has the same restrictions that Ubisoft’s DRM carries, both need to be on for a game to function. Yet one for the most part is praised and the other scorn.

Simply put, Steam rewards the player for using it unlike most DRM services. With Steam I have a unified friend’s list, a store where I can buy games on sale and I don’t have to worry about game patches among other things. This is the same practice that designers have been talking about for years to combat piracy, providing services that reward the player for buying their game instead of punishing them.

Another point of contention involves Internet access and this is where I do see the point against Ubi’s system. While both services require Internet access, Ubi’s requires a constant connection (I have heard that it has been changed for some titles to an “on start up” check), whereas Steam can be launched in offline mode to play the single-player games on your list. Some of us are not blessed with 100% stable Internet access and having your entire game library tied to a secondary service puts a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths.

Arguably Steam at this point in time is the lesser and most popular of the DRM evils and it has generated another side effect. Publishers have been turning to Steam (or specifically Steam-works) to use it as their form of DRM instead of other services. Once again this goes back to its popularity, more gamers have accepted Steam then those that don’t. Why should a publisher risk angering their fan base with an unpopular form of DRM like Securom or Star-Force, when they can use one that is on the majority of their user base’s computers?

One area that a lot of publishers still need to understand is that Steam is a form of DRM. I know I said that a few paragraphs up, however there are still games being put on Steam with another DRM included and this can really piss off gamers. For instance Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War 2 required both Steam and Games For Windows Live running at the same time for the game to work. This annoyed a lot of people including yours truly, as it feels like a completely arbitrary move that doesn’t reward the player for buying the game. With recent expansions, Relic has gotten the clue and has removed the GFWL requirement for their latest titles. Another example is how Borderlands’ base game has no protection on it, but two of the DLC packs have Securom attached to them

I know that there are many gamers out there who fight against Steam. When Civilization 5 was announced that it would carry Steamworks, many fans of the series blew their top. Lurking on forums and review boards, a lot of fans have never even heard of Steam before the announcement. I thought that it was funny that so many gamers did not know what Steam is, but then asking around my job at that time, many people didn’t know about it either.

With more digital retailers using their own created platform to sell , such as Impulse there is one area that I’m amazed that none of these places have ventured to: Advertising. I see advertisements and commercials for brick and mortar stores all the time, yet I have not seen one yet showing off specifically Steam. I know we’ve all seen the advertisements for Portal 2, Left 4 Dead and The Orange Box. However, I’m surprised that we haven’t seen anything showing off Steam itself to consumers.

The beauty of Steam is that it does the same thing doctors and parents for years have done to get kids to take their medicine: Mix in something sweet to hide the bitter taste.

Josh.

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