From Dust was the very long awaited next game from Out Of This World designer: Eric Chahi. Moving away from the plat former genre, From Dust was looked at as the latest attempt at the God Game genre. While it fortunately doesn’t require divine intervention, it could use some Ambrosia.

The story is that you are “the breath”: a spirit guiding a wandering tribe in search of an ancient people. Your quest will take you to numerous islands where you’ll have to settle the land before moving on. Your main source of interaction with the world is being able to lift up and put down matter. This allows you to alter the lay of the land, whether that is using lava to create rock walls, or sand to set up paths across water. The physics engine of the game is one of the high points and I really liked how the elements flowed realistically. A high enough wall can dam up a river and create a lake, and it was a sight to behold watching lava flow.

You will also be able to direct your tribe to totems on the map where they’ll be able to settle villages. Most maps feature natural disasters that hit periodicity which can destroy your villages. You can usually find a repel stone that will teach your villages how to block either lava or water which can be taught to your other villages. Each village also gives you a spell that can be used, which usually plays into completing the level.

Sadly that’s all there is and where the issues with From Dust begin. Each level follows the same pattern of settling your villages and dealing with the token gimmick. The problem is that it doesn’t feel like a God Game where each level has only one real solution but a puzzle game. The game also falls into one of the annoying traps of strategy games where the levels require trial and error to solve. Later levels will have the player getting hit with a disaster shortly after founding their first village.

The problem is that the player will have no idea how the disaster will affect the land until after it hits. Such as how the lava will flow during an eruption or where to set up walls to protect their village. A very annoying case in point being the second to last level, which hits the player with scripted events not allowing the player to prepare for it without knowing about it beforehand.

While the use of matter and the physics engine are great, the same can’t be said about the other mechanics. When your tribe is moving across the map, they have trouble changing paths if you make an easier path. As the game goes on, the ability to move your villages along with special trees are introduced. However outside of a scripted event, there use is just unneeded. As the basic mechanics and village powers are more than adequate to solve every level. The final level is essentially sandbox mode, allowing the player complete control over the elements. But with such limited interaction with the mechanics, it doesn’t feel as rewarding as it could have been.

Reviews also criticized the controls of the game. Playing the PC version, the mouse is used to move the breath, instead of having the mouse be the breath. This makes it hard to get fine control but to be honest; it wasn’t game breaking for me.

It’s a shame, as the core mechanics of shaping the land were fun. But the game feels more like an appetizer instead of a full course. I would love to see the base mechanics included in a game with more city building or strategy design. Imagine shaping the land to create a river or lake so that your followers now have fresh water, or creating a mountain so that miners can harvest iron for weapons. I’m surprised we haven’t seen a strategy game go full God powers in its design. Like creating a tsunami to wash away enemy troops while you’re dealing with a tornado. I would just be happy with a “release the kraken” button to hit.

Josh Bycer

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The God Game genre is one of those genres that have not had good luck transitioning to modern markets. Incidentally, city builders which share similar mechanics are also on the list. Last year, From Dust was the latest attempt at creating a God Game and got mixed reviews. Looking at From Dust and the genre as a whole, the problems are similar to the ones a certain “Man of Steel” has fought before.

The idea of a “God Game” is one of those all encompassing terms (which is the same as the term “God”,) that makes it hard to set a basic list of rules for. The problem is that looking at the genre; it shares mechanics from other genres. Strategy games, city builders and sand box titles are the building blocks of a God Game. The issue is that the more genres a game is based on. The more areas that must be polished and properly balanced for the game to work as a whole.

Black and White was one of the first attempts at trying to combine all three genres into one experience in 3D, and it faced issues with the design. One of the issues is with power, specifically, how powerful should the player be? If the player can shape the planet to their whim and summon meteor showers, then where is the challenge? That problem is what comic book writers have faced with one of the most popular characters of all time.

Throughout the years, comic book writers have had a tough time creating stories for Superman. How do you write meaningful stories where your character can solve any problem by throwing it into the sun? There have been many “mcguffins” used to weaken Superman, from Kryptonite, magic, red sun radiation and many more, (my only personal knowledge is limited to the Superman cartoons.) This problem has also found its way into the games based off of Superman. If the player has no limits on what they can do, then you have a title with very little challenge.

Some solutions have been basing the threats of Superman away from physical, and more emotional. Such as trying to save the people, or fitting in on a strange planet. The problem for games though is that it’s very hard to do emotional or personal stories in games. The attempted solution in Black and White was to base the character’s power on the people and was a God game where the player could die. Limiting the player’s power is the easiest solution, but saying that “God is Dead” (I had to work it in somewhere) just feels like it goes against the nature of the genre.

As the players got further into Black and White, the freedom of being a god became more restrictive. Players would find themselves limited by belief and force to do things like picking up a rock and throwing it around constantly just to extend their control. The game required a lot of busy work keeping your people fed and healthy while training your creature.

From Dust had the opposite problem, as the game goes on the player’s abilities increases. The final level gives the player complete control over the elements, which while awesome, does get boring. Due to the player’s only meaningful interaction in the game being said elements with little control of their people.

In a way, Spore may be the most successful attempt at a true God Game, combining all 3 genres into one. However, it fails in the regard that each system is its own sub game instead of providing all 3 at once. Once players reach the Space stage (sandbox layer), there isn’t any reason to return to previous stages with that creature.

Somewhere between strategy, city building and sandbox games, the God Game genre at its best sits. The problem comes down to a simple question: How do you give the player the powers of a God, while still providing meaningful gameplay? I wish I had a perfect answer for this but I’m still pondering this myself. If I can figure this out, I’ll let everyone know by simultaneously ringing every phone on the planet.

Josh Bycer

P.S Let’s see how many people get that reference.

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While the title may suggest otherwise, I am not in the Diablo 3 beta. As I’ve been counting the minutes for either Diablo 3 or Torchlight 2 to be released, I ran through Torchlight 1. Playing it, I noticed several things that didn’t seem right with the mechanics that I wanted to take a closer look at.

When it comes to the action RPG genre, any fan knows about the cycle: you fight enemies to get loot to help you level up and repeat. In other words, the magic phrase is: Fight, Loot, and Level. If any of those three are not represented correctly, it can bring the experience down. We’re going to ignore “Fight” for this post, as everyone should know what is good or bad about it.

Loot is the big one, and is one of the main draws of any action RPG. With loot, there are two schools of design: set or random. Set loot, means that the designers hard coded every item, piece of equipment and weapon in the entire game. Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls are currently the best examples of this practice.

The advantage of set design is that by knowing every piece of gear in the game, it gives the designers freedom to get creative. In Dark Souls, each weapon type is unique in its feel and utility. This also allowed the designers to easily set up a general pace of getting equipment and balancing it out with enemy encounters.

There are two disadvantages to set loot design. First is that it has a cap, there is such a thing as the “best sword in the game” or “best piece of armor”. Meaning, that eventually the drive for better loot disappears, which is one third of the pull of playing action RPGs. Playing Demon’s Souls; I lose a lot of the motivation to continue playing new game +s as there is no new equipment to find.

The other has to do with PvP; set loot largely turns PvP into a race to get the best loot before anyone else. When I played PvP in Dark Souls, no matter how great I was at avoiding damage, all it took was one hit from someone’s high level weapon to kill me instantly. This forced me out of PvP until I could grab better weapons which would take awhile.

Randomized loot design which is used in most action RPGs, is that instead of defining set pieces of gear in the game. The designers set up algorithms for loot generations. If you look at Diablo 2, every item that has unique stats or bonuses comes with a prefix/suffix or prefixes, such as “burning” or “spiked”. These adjectives defined what kinds of bonuses are attached to the gear and from there the weapon is given the amount of that type. That means that my “freezing, burning axe” could be different from your “freezing burning axe”. Items are also graded in terms of rarity. This allowed the player to quickly see what equipment is more powerful and affects the bonuses from the adjectives. Diablo 2′s loot table is still one of the best of the genre with all the variables that go into generating loot.

Obviously the big advantage of randomized loot is replay ability. You never know if that chest or enemy will drop some super piece of gear. New gear provides both a visual boost (better gear = shiner avatar) and of course the stat boost. With Diablo 2, the harder the difficulty level, the chance of finding rarer gear is increased further encouraging play.

The problems with random loot and where Torchlight fits into this post, is that there is more to it than just creating random gear. In order for loot to motivate people, there must be an ascending trend of power over time. Meaning the further the player gets, the better the loot they find.

In Torchlight the loot table is not as refined as Diablo 2 was. For example while playing on hardcore mode; I used a chest armor I found within the first 5 floors of the game, as my only piece of chest armor for the entire game. While the idea of being able to find any equipment anywhere in the game sounds good on paper, it does cause two problems.

First is that it breaks the flow of the game. Enemies are designed around the generalized loot in the area. Meaning, if the best armor in the area can only block 3 points of damage, then enemies shouldn’t be set at dealing 30 damage per hit. If the loot table isn’t balanced with the enemies it can lead to the player either demolishing everything, or barely able to survive. Not properly balancing loot and enemies also makes it difficult to determine where to introduce new enemies or strengthen existing ones.

That leads to problem two, having the randomized element of the game work against the player. In Torchlight, my first character on very hard difficulty did not get lucky finding new pistols and armor to use. I went 5 floors using the same gun and armor. When I arrived in a new area, I could barely kill anything and enemies were nearly killing me with each hit.

The problem with Torchlight is that the loot table is not ascending as much as Diablo 2. If I find a rare item on floor 3 in Torchlight and another on floor 5, there is a good chance the former is as powerful or stronger then the later. However in Diablo 2, finding a rare sword at the beginning of an act and at the end, you are practically guaranteed that the latter is stronger than the former.

Looking deeper at Torchlight one of the problem areas I saw has to do with the types of rarity. Ignoring normal or white weapons Torchlight has the following categories: green for magical, blue for rare, gold for unique, and purple for set items (items that go together.) The problem with this is that with only a few categories, it makes it harder to find better gear.

If you get lucky and get gold equipment early on, chances are you won’t find anything to replace it for a long time (such as 4 or 5 floors or more). Likewise if you are stuck with a blue or green item, you’re going to find plenty of them which may or may not be better then what you have. Due to the rate of finding blue items which most unique monsters drop, it lowers the value of green items outside of the very beginning of the game.

Another issue with Torchlight is that there is more quantity then quality with loot, some unique enemies and chests drop multiple pieces of the same equipment type all within the same level range. This makes it a crap shoot when it comes to getting new gear. Sometimes you’ll find something that is miles above what you have, and other times you’ll find 2 or more pieces of equipment equal to or worse then what you have. As an example while fighting level 11 enemies, I saw loot as low as level 8 dropping. If the quality of loot increased at a faster rate, that would elevate some of the issues.

Going back to Diablo 2 it had the following categories (not counting normal or low quality): high quality, magical, rare, set and unique. That’s 5 to Torchlight’s 4, meaning there is a greater spread of items to find. In Torchlight my chance of getting a unique item to replace a rare is low. However in Diablo 2, I have a much greater chance of replacing my high quality item with something better. Combine that with the quality of loot rising at a fast pace, makes the hunt for loot an enjoyable one and not an act of necessity.

The challenge of using loot as a motivator is that the player shouldn’t be surviving from one piece to another, and at the same time, going hours using the same gear also doesn’t work. That does it for part one, in part two we’ll take a look at leveling and see if Diablo 2 still stands as the best in this area.

Josh Bycer.

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Recently playing through FEAR 3, I saw a basic form of a concept that I’ve been playing around in my head for some time. I’ve played plenty of co-op games which all follow the same rule: “all for one and one for all.” However, I’ve yet to see a game where players are working together… except they aren’t.

This is where this concept of an “anti co-op” game comes to play. Where two or more players are working together at the same time they are completely opposed to each other. Now it’s important to make the distinction that this is not about competitive games, as they are about two sides attempting to win over the other. “An uneasy alliance” is a saying that goes here.

Before I go further, it’s important to talk about FEAR 3′s system as it plays into this discussion. In the co-op mode, each player has a list of challenges that they can achieve during the level. The challenges are categorized into different groups based on what has to be done. Such as performing certain # of head shots or finding collectibles. At the end of the level, the game stores how many challenges were completed and which category they belong to for each player. While both players are working together to beat the level, they are also competing for the most points which are earned via the challenges. After the final level, the game tallies up who “wins” based on how they came out in each category. The winner gets to view the ending where their character comes out on top.

The two issues that Fear 3 has with my concept, is that it only deals with long term effects and the gameplay is not affected by it. For this idea to work, I have several elements in mind.

1. Asymmetrical Characters: Both players should be different from each other in terms of abilities and objectives to complete. One reason is that they should have to help each other, even if it is for a short while. Each player should be trying to focus on their goals while trying to complete the overall goal for the level. This is one area that FEAR 3 sort of worked. One player controls Point Man who has bullet time abilities, while the other controls Fettel who can possess enemies.

2. Player’s Affecting Gameplay: In my mind, there are two areas of gameplay that the players should be able to alter: paths through the level and which levels to go through. The problem with FEAR 3 is that by only letting the player’s alter the ending, it doesn’t give any short term control to the players. By allowing the winner to affect the gameplay, it raises the stakes for trying to complete their agenda. I could picture the plot changing based on who wins each level and could bounce back and forth between each player.

3. Both Players Have to Survive: This one is important. If the players could kill one another or not care about the other player, then the game won’t be any different than a competitive game. The concept is that the players should be working together for a common goal, at the same time that they are stabbing each other in the back.

4. Separate and Together: Tasks in the level will be split between ones that the players can go off and do on their own and ones where they will be forced to work together. Boss fights will always require the players to team up to take them down, with each player given a different task during the fight.

Now I would love to say that I have a 30 page design document finished for this idea, but I don’t. Currently I have concept in my head for this but it still needs to be refined more. Co-op games have been getting a lot of steam these days thanks to the popularity of titles like Left 4 Dead or even League of Legends. However, we haven’t seen too many games stretch the concept of working together. With the only other game besides FEAR 3, was Kane and Lynch 2′s heist mode, but lack of positive reviews meant that not a lot of people tried it out.

It’s always interesting to think up new game mechanics, and what better way to play with your friends, then with some good old fashion back stabbing?

Josh Bycer

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