Saturday, November 16, 2013

Silent Hill 2, or, Shoofle Gets Too Scared To Play

I wrote about Silent Hill 2 today, which my roommate and I finally finished playing last night. I gave up on it previously, much to his annoyance, because it was just too stressful and scary for me to play. That hasn't happened before. He eventually took up the controller in my stead, but after trading it off to me for boss fights a few times, I picked it back up for the final few bits. After I got my thoughts down, I thought I'd collect some lasting thoughts or impressions; in retrospect, I think they're more interesting than the rest of the review. It's hiding behind the link - here's the TL;DR:

Okay, so, I want to try to get some kind of lasting something out of games more often, so I'm going to try to think about what I learned from each game I play. Silent Hill 2?

  1. The absence of enemies defines a horror game. This game got a hell of a lot of mileage out of giving you enemies to fight, and then not giving enemies for you to fight, so you're left with that floaty confused feeling - which intensifies the terror of actually seeing an enemy tenfold. 
  2. Leave the player weak and unable to affect their environment. I didn't often die in this game, but I got hit - it was scary, and I used my healing items a lot in contrast to my hoarder tendencies. I didn't down them reflexively, but it was a fairly regular thing. The disruption of getting hit once in every three battles aided my terror, and when I eventually figured out the combat, it became a lot less stressful.
  3. If the player character responds ambiguously or in a low-key way, the player responds directly instead. This supercharges things like fear and terror, but can easily bite you in the ass for confusing story and plot. If the player sees the character being scared, then the player just watches it all happen. If the character doesn't show terror, then the player will feel it themselves.
  4. Fourth, creepy shit is creepy as shit, but you've gotta play it quiet. Being startled is almost diametrically opposed from being unsettled. The threat of startling overpowers the actual effect of being startled by a million to one.

thanks, silent hill wiki

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Pacific RimCity

I saw Pacific Rim last night. I have complicated feelings on it.
(Short and skinny: That movie was aggressively dumb, but I really enjoyed it. It was terrible at women. I don't think they said anything related to science that was right. But that was the best goddamn robot-punches-monster movie I've ever seen.)
Increasingly, though, I'm loving this idea I had a few days ago, for a Pacific Rim game. Unsurprisingly, there's a game of it - I haven't played it and it doesn't sound interesting. It got bad reviews. I know not to trust the-game-of-the-movie. Whatever. Here's my idea:

Pacific RimCity:

Calamity! Your unnamed mid-sized city has been attacked by a kaiju! The nearby military base sent all their forces to try and slow it down, but they didn't manage to stop it until it had carved a swath of destruction from the docks through the industrial sector. Only one business tower was struck, but the casualties are too many to think about - but you're the mayor. You need to start readying your city for the next time this happens, because the reports of attacks on other cities every year prove: this is not going to stop. This is where the player takes control: It's your turn to build up your city, in some kind of cross between Agricola and SimCity, in preparation for the attack. How do you keep morale up? How do you build up your businesses enough that you can pay for the massive robot parts? How do you reconstruct the industrial sector so that you can assemble a Jaeger of your own? These are the challenges you must face over the next year or several!

Fast forward through several turns/years of the game. The player controls the city during this time, mostly on a large scale - they're responsible for some degree of rezoning and city planning, as well as the higher level tasks of allocating resources and defining what direction the city is taking. Now, a klaxon familiar from news reports sounds in your very office: A kaiju has been sighted. Yours is the only Jaeger in the area. It's up to your team of crack pilots!

With you in command, of course. At this point the game switches focus from city-building to real-time tactics, as you have to direct your Jaeger in the battle with the kaiju. The key that ties this into the rest of the game, though, is that you're doing this battle in the city you've just built. You must take care not to do too much damage to the city you're trying to protect. Maybe you've built a buffer of easily-evacuable warehouse districts by the water (it slowed down your manufacturing districts to be farther from the ocean and therefore supplies) and as long as you keep the kaiju distracted there, damage will be minimized. Maybe you put all your Jaeger research into building a machine that could easily control the kaiju on the battlefield - at the expense of armor hardpoints!

Your Jaeger, presumably, wins the day. Now, though, it's time for you to rebuild, refit, and reassure your populace that all is well and you'll be ready for the next attack... And that casualties will be lessened next time, in the face of ever-more-powerful attackers.

Read more for more specifics and gameplay ideas.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Stuck in LIMBO

I had a few other ideas for posts, but I decided to put them on hold so I could talk about a game that missed the mark for me: Limbo.

Limbo is a 2D platformer with a wonderful, creepy aesthetic. There's a very consistent art style that invokes a feeling of near powerlessness in a strange world of large spiders and crushing cogs. You play as a young boy navigating a weird world in shades of grey with death lurking around almost every corner. I think you're looking for your sister, though that is information I've gleaned from other sources than the game.

I picked up Limbo because it garnered a lot of praise as a puzzle platformer. I enjoyed the art style, and the music lends itself to a consistent aesthetic. You feel very alone in this strange world as you manipulate it to avoid death and further your journey.

For the first part of the game, I was somewhat interested. There were a few interesting puzzle moments, and it was interesting that there were also large breaks in the action. But for some reason, it just didn't grab me. It could be that the story wasn't laid out for me or just that the action was too spread out.

The puzzles were either very transparent or obtuse. The latter version left me irritated as it took dying to determine what the rules of the game were. In a few cases, while it was potentially possible to make the right decisions the first time, I found that I couldn't react to new information in sufficient time to live. Puzzles either left me underwhelmed or incredibly frustrated. Either I couldn't determine how to overcome an obstacle or I couldn't execute to the precision needed.

The game lingers a little too long on the death scenes for my liking. There's no easy way to restart a checkpoint once you realize that you've botched a puzzle, so instead you have to surrender to the circular saw or jump into the spiked pit. The scene lingers on your impaled or dismembered form before resetting you. While this may lend to the aesthetic, from a gameplay perspective, it took me out of the experience. Compare that to a game like Super Meat Boy, in which death takes a matter of a second or two before you're back in the saddle again. That approach is designed to facilitate flow, which I never achieved in Limbo. Granted, they have different approaches to the dynamic, but Limbo failed me on this point.

This sums up my feelings on this game

I actually realized while playing the game that I wasn't enjoying the experience. I was just going through the motions in an effort to not let the game get the better of me. Either I was detached from the experience or incredibly frustrated by it. I finally called it quits to write this about 2/3 of the way through when I encountered a puzzle that I'm not certain is solvable. (Obviously it is, as many other people have completed this game, but I can't figure it out. Even turning to a guide has left me with instructions that don't make sense. And before you offer, no thanks, I'm done.) Maybe I'm just bitter because I can't do it. But I'm no longer beholden to this game.

Limbo's main failing points, then, are an odd approach to pacing that didn't keep me invested in the experience and a discrepancy in puzzle difficulty coupled with lingering too long on deaths. I enjoyed the art style and the seamless transition without a HUD or loading screens. The music was largely absent (what is even on the soundtrack?), though, which was an interesting artistic choice. This is the first game I've played in a while that I simply didn't enjoy, despite many reviews to the contrary. I guess we're all entitled to our own opinions, then. Now I'm going to go play more Gauntlet: Dark Legacy while unsuccessfully trying to avoid the Steam sales.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

i've had it with art being soft-spoken; my art's gonna ROAR

Let me tell you about Crystal Warrior Ke$ha.
No. Don't let me.
You are Ke$ha and you have no time for my feckless words. Like lances wielded by lady knights, your eye-lasers spear out and click that link, as you begin to play it for yourself.

Okay, you've played it now, right? Good. I just scratched the whole half an article I wrote because I want to talk about Crystal Warrior Ke$ha.

What feelings did the piece evoke in you?
Rising strength.

I happen to know that the author has at least a bit of programming skill, but this was not written as a programmer, and that is fucking bad-ass. I can flail my fingers ineffectually at trying to do artistic endeavors in a programming mindset, but why?

Queer writer kids are using Twine to express themselves directly through games. This is the future of games as art. Twine takes this task - writing choose-your-own-adventure games - and presents them in the most sensible format: a text editor. Seriously: why would you do anything else? With Twine you skip having to think about anything except what you're making.

Kill that last paragraph. I don't care. I don't want to talk about games in this analytical way. I want my games to be emotional, I want them to be passionate, I want them to burn with the fire of my life, I want them to tear the player apart and rebuild them as a glittering obelisk of rage and power and speed and I'm going to continue tearing apart my artistic environments until I've destroyed everything that keeps me chained down to concerns of what's reasonable and what I can code - until I've torn to shreds the paper that covers my eyes and blinds me to my canvas.

We want games to be recognized as art? Then we should start making them like artists.

(Now you should go play Twine games: some lung-poppingly funny, some pants-dampeningly hot, some about heavy stuff, and - hell, just check out everything porpentine's made, and then start googling around for Twine games. If I ever hear you saying that these "aren't real games" then I'll bash your fucking nose in. Each twine game can be played in less than ten minutes! Seriously. Go play High End Customizable Sauna Experience, because it's one of the funniest things I've experienced in years.)

(Oh right, and one final thought - if you bristle at my admonishment to "make games like an artist", then I'll admit that art can certainly be made like a programmer - but right now that's the only way games are made. I like chiptunes, but there's so much more to music than the music made by programmers, y'read me?)

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Why Every Aspiring Game Designer should DM

All video game RPGs have their roots in Dungeons and Dragons. In some games it shows more strongly than others, in everything from the main stats (STR, DEX, CON...) to even names of specific spells or powers. A friend of mine got me into tabletop a few years ago, and after joining a 3.5e D&D game over Skype with the rest of the SA crew a few months ago, I've become thoroughly hooked.

Two things led to the idea of this post: a D&D exercise in the game design class that I TAed for earlier this summer and my first foray into Dungeon Mastering. For the uninitiated, tabletop roleplaying involves people sitting around a table (or Skype call) with dice, character sheets, and occasionally dungeon grids and miniatures. One person, the Dungeon or Game Master (DM/GM) runs the session. He or she is in charge of putting forth the story, "You receive a letter from courier. It is addressed to you in a flowing hand, but there is no mark of the sender save for a sigil on the seal you've never seen before." She controls the enemies in encounters and enforces the rules of the system (be it D&D or other), or doesn't, as the case may be.

After a brief lesson on balancing, the Game Design professor directed the class to four character sheets for 4e 9th level characters as well as a variety of monsters they might run into. He then challenged them to create two monsters of their own and design an encounter for the four characters to run into. The next class, we playtested some of them. As most of the class had no D&D experience and none of them had any with 4e, there were many balancing problems. A few had monsters with reasonable stats except that they were very difficult to hit, while another group made interesting monsters that weren't hard-hitting enough to pose a challenge to the players. My favorite, however, was the group battling a cyclops that had 1000 HP, keeping in mind that, at this level, characters are doing 14-15 damage per hit on good strike.

I was thinking of that lesson as I approached my first experience DMing. While I love our Skype shenanigans, I longed to have face-to-face conversation and missed the feel of real dice in my hands. So I recruited my brother and housemates to join me in an adventure. I wrote a simple campaign in a system that was effectively D&D-lite to teach them how to play. Despite a few balancing problems of my own, the campaign went well and we're looking for another chance to play. They started as strangers in the dungeon of an unfamiliar mansion and worked their way up to the lord's chambers, where they confronted him in the midst of a blood magic ritual to revive his dead wife. Battling off shadow creatures and crippling fear, one player rolled a critical hit after dipping his arrow in what they assumed was holy water. I described in detail as the arrow zipped through the air, piercing the lord's head and filling him with a brilliant light as he screamed and collapsed. The day was saved.

Sounds a lot like a video game, right? Between these two experiences, I've come to the conclusion that budding game designers should give DMing a shot. While there are aspects of it that don't come up in video games, such as managing rambunctious friends, I still think it's a valuable experience.
  1. Story design: The DM is responsible for crafting a story that the players can bring to life. You determine how to throw a disparate set of characters together and what to throw at them to make them grow. Our Skype campaign started with us defending a town and has progressed through our investigation to battling angels and racing to preserve the very fabric of space itself.
  2. Dungeon design: Most D&D campaigns involve a bit of dungeon crawling, and that requires putting together a floorplan, as well as a series of enemies, traps, and even puzzles. 
  3. Following the rules: D&D has a set of rules that are put forth in the Player's Handbook and the Dungeon Master's Guide. Other books expand the setting and enrich the experience. This gives you an idea of the scale of creating a game and how to work within the restrictions of the medium.
  1. Breaking the rules: Sometimes a rule doesn't serve the experience you're trying to create. In our Skype game, one of us had never roleplayed before and three of us had never done D&D. To that end, our DM removed the level penalty for death. (I greatly appreciate this, playing as a sorceror.) We still want to avoid death, of course, and resurrection still costs 5000 gp, but it's much less discouraging this way, which has been helpful to a beginner's campaign.
  2. Thinking outside of the box: PCs do some wacky things. I've used my raven familiar to untie ropes and give us another view on something. We've had players attempt to scale a giant worm to rescue a team member caught in its maw. The DM has to call for the proper checks and decide how well a plan will go off.
  3. Balancing: As in the example from class above, balancing is a vital but tricky part of game design. Tabletop systems try to help out by using things like challenge ratings, but the dice gods are fickle and some classes aren't built to take on certain threats. For that matter, ask why different dice types are used for different attacks. What's the difference between rolling 2d6 and 1d4+4?
  4. Managing player expectations: This is generally built into the system, but still an important point. Players can't generally see the stats of the enemies that they fight, but they'll bring some assumptions to the table: a vampire will be harmed by sunlight, a zombie will have bad reflexes, a dragon won't be likely to fail a Will save, and so on. See how these expectations are built into the system and why they're important.

At the end of the day, DMing and game design both endeavor to deliver an immersive experience to the player. The extensive rules involved in any tabletop system, though particularly D&D, will prepare game designers for the sort of thinking that programming a game requires. Designing a campaign has direct parallels in designing video games of many genres. Dealing with player characters will give you instant feedback and insight into how PCs tackle obstacles and view challenge.

If you've never played tabletop, head to your local game/hobby store and ask - many will run weekly or monthly game nights or host local groups. Look for people playing online. See if any of your friends play or would be interested. If fantasy isn't your cup of tea, give a system like Savage Worlds a try, which is designed to be extensible to any setting you can think of. Get off the computer, grab some dice, and pull up a chair.

It's time for adventure.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Finishing the Unfinished Swan

So after I fell in love with Journey, a few friends pointed me towards the Unfinished Swan. It's a game of exploration developed by Giant Sparrow games, and is only available on PS3. The $15 price point seems a little steep, but it was a delightful experience that I don't regret purchasing. This review will be a little light, as it's a short game and I don't want to ruin the aspect of discovery for those who have yet to give it a try.

You play as Monroe, whose mother was a painter, though she wasn't very good at finishing things. When she died, the orphanage allowed Monroe to keep one of her hundreds of unfinished paintings. He chose her favorite - the unfinished swan. One night he wakes up to find that the swan is gone! He grabs his mother's silver paintbrush and enters a door that hadn't been there before.

The game starts you in a completely white area and leaves you to figure out how to play. The main mechanic is being able to throw balls of paint around, which splatter on the walls and reveal the environment around you. I felt a delightful sense of childlike wonder as I explored this first area, a silly grin on my face. The music sneaks in, revealing itself as the world around you does. The score is perfectly whimsical and the intermittent narration adds to the storybook feel of the game.

Even though the initial area felt like it could be the entirety of the game, the mechanic evolves a few times, keeping gameplay fresh. I was only at a loss for what to do a couple times and never felt that anything was beyond my abilities. It seems like a game that would be great for playing with kids, though the nighttime levels got a little scary for me.

All in all, it was a delightful experience that I've enjoyed sharing with others. After finishing the game, you can use the balloons you've collected to purchase toys and even an initial test level. I may go back to some levels and try to get more of the balloons, especially now that I've gotten the balloon radar.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Thoughts on E3: We Are the Revolution

This started as a pretty standard review of what I saw while watching the E3 press conferences this year. I started typing in on tumblr and my thoughts just kinda poured out. Props to shoofle on the subtitle of this post. So here is and expanded version of my reaction to E3:

Microsoft shot themselves in the foot. And probably several more vital parts of the anatomy, but they have enough fanboys and people not plugged in enough to be worried about the used game stuff, internet connection, and potential spying that they’ll stay afloat. None of the new IP really managed to grab my interest, largely because there was little explanation of any of it. (How is Quantum Break also going to be a TV show or something?) And I just can't get over the Kinect being constantly on.

Sony laid a great smackdown on them, and their presenters were much more personal overall. Again, they drew me in with the IP more than MS ever has. I'm excited for Kingdom Hearts 3 and can't wait for Last of Us to hit finally and a host of indie titles (yay!). And with debuting their console $100 lower, it seems to me that Sony won this round. Mostly because they debuted a game console and told us all about how it lets us play games.

Nintendo came out with the game announcements they should have launched with last year. I’m still optimistic for the Wii U, as it’s an interesting controller setup that I want to see game devs play with more. But Nintendo botched the launch in many ways and this isn’t quite enough to put them on the map again. Diehard fans are ecstatic at the announcement of new games for Mario, Zelda, Pokemon and SSB, as well as an HD re-release of Wind Waker. Sure, it's safe. But the buzz around this low-key release proves that Nintendo sticks with what it knows because they do it so very well.


Overall, I was still underwhelmed. (Keep in mind I caught MS’s, most of EA’s, and the latter half of Sony’s. Missed Nintendo’s but read a quick recap.) I couldn't shake the feeling that I’m not the target audience. This is not a new feeling for me, by a long shot, but I guess I’m finally fed up with it. So many games were announced with grizzled white guys as the PC. The two notable exceptions were Mirror's Edge 2 and Bayonetta 2, both sequels. So many games (I’m looking at you, MS) were unimaginative FPS’s. Even the few that dared a spark of imagination still felt like a shiny new skin slapped on a CoD clone. Few of the performers and demo players were women, and one who was became the subject of an uncomfortable (though likely unintended) rape joke (which has been apologized for, but still).

It hit me yesterday that AAA titles, by and large, are not going to deliver the experience I want to have. They aren’t going to tell the meaningful stories with choices that have real impact, take a chance on female, PoC, and/or LGBTQ heroes, or provide new and refreshing gameplay. (Yes, you get the occasional standout, and feel free to point me to them.) This is not a new revelation, per se, merely the hardest it’s hit me. I’ve just come off of TAing a semester of Game Design, one of my fav classes from undergrad.

I can expect more from this industry.

The games I want to play are going to come from the indie community.

The games I want to play are going to be built by me.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

I'm Going To Stop Revising This Post So That I Can Post It (Sorry If It's Scatterbrained, I Welcome Criticism)

I should be working on a thing for a potential employer so that I can get a job, but I'm not. Instead, I feel like talking about thematic consistency and enemy types. I've been playing Red Faction: Armageddon and I love the weapons and destruction in it but damn, if it isn't a terrible game in just about every other way.

Let's list off some enemy type tropes you can encounter in a video game, shall we?
  • Snipers! (enemies who avoid you and attack from a great distance)
  • Juggernauts! (slow and hard to kill)
  • Turrets! (immobile enemies with a lot of health)
  • Chargers! (move quickly towards you, melee attack, don't turn fast)
  • Swarmers! (low health, low damage, attack in large groups)
  • Small fry! (easy to defeat, medium health/damage, attack in small groups or individually)
  • Teleport spammers! (enemies who spam teleports)
That's a lot of cool ideas! So when you're making a game, you should try to use a lot of those to make sure you've got variety, right?

If that sounded good, you need to take a deep breath and think about why you're making decisions. Why should the players fight juggernauts instead of snipers? Why put in a horde of swarmers? And should your decisions be influenced purely by an abstract desire for variety?

In Portal, there's only one kind of enemy - turrets! There are other obstacles as well, but all obstacles are  chosen because they're needed for whatever the puzzle in question is. In other words, you never see a situation where, purely to increase difficulty without changing the approach required, four turrets are used instead of three. Rather, four turrets are used because it makes it impossible to approach from the rear, requiring a different strategy. 

This quality - that obstacles are chosen based on the puzzle the designer is constructing, rather than simply how much effort it should take - is, in my opinion, desirable. It translates to non-puzzle games quite well, also: 
  • Choosing what obstacles a player faces must be guided by what experience the player is supposed to have. This choice should never be solely based on how long the player should spend or how difficult it should be.
Of course, the exception is when the experience you're trying to build purely flows from the difficulty the player is overcoming.

In Red Faction: Armageddon, the variety of opponents feels totally forced. Enemies come in a wide variety of species (I think?) and as far as I can tell, the only reason for this is that they needed more difficult enemies so that battles could be longer without being boring as hell - which brings to our attention the fact that the battles aren't very fun to begin with.

It's really bothersome because I honestly have no clue what these aliens are supposed to be. Are they a covenant of different Martian races? If so, why are they working together (especially when they seem to be non-sentient)? Are they mutated humans? If so, why do they come in so many forms? Why do living beings have laser cannons and plasma bombs? Ultimately, the answer to all of these questions is the same as the answer to the question of why they've got Snipers, Juggernauts, Turrets, Small fry, and the rest:
  • Because the game would be boring otherwise.
When the variety of the enemies you fight is the only thing keeping your combat from being boring, you're doing things very wrong unless that's a pretty major part of your game. Ultimately, Red Faction: Armageddon fails because even the variety of enemies doesn't make for interesting combat. 

Variety should be a secondary concern. It should flow from the other decisions you make.

I've included my thoughts on enemy variety in some games:
  • When Halo did this they owned it and justified it in the backstory. It felt a little forced - "oh, now I'm fighting elites!" - but it was justified by the fact that the Covenant was literally stratified and composed of differing races with differing abilities. Still, feels like forced variety.
  • In Red Faction: Armageddon, every battle is just about the same - there are a bunch of small fry, some heavier enemies, a sniper or two, and sometimes a support tower that buffs everyone. Battles feel formulaic and nothing about them is ever driven by the surrounding events in the game. The only effect on my experience of having different kinds of enemies is that in each battle, I have to take out the small fry with my assault rifle, medium enemies with my magic powers, snipers with my beam rifle, and heavier enemies with my heavier weapon. There's never a reason for them to be there. Such forced variety!
  • Mirror's Edge had different types of enemies, but they felt like people employed by the same few organizations - the jump from cops to SWAT officers felt like I was stepping up to a harder difficulty, but when the cops started carrying shotguns instead of pistols it was just different people in the same organization - and I tried to avoid them either way. The step from cops to SWAT officers also made sense in the context of the story, as the police force started realizing I was a threat and as politics happened.
  • In Valkyrie Chronicles, variety in types of soldiers is a central mechanic and part of the game, so it's totally justified and doesn't feel jarring - and it doesn't feel jarring because this kind of variety is used well. There's no unilaterally harder enemy type to fight, with the possible exception of tanks. Varying difficulty is provided by changing the size of the forces involved, and by changing the conditions and terrain you're fighting in.
  • In Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, it absolutely feels like there's a sliding scale of difficulty and enemies are being picked from it purely according to how hard it should be. Forced variety!
  • In Portal, there's only one kind of enemy - turrets! There are other obstacles as well, but all obstacles are  chosen because they're needed for whatever the puzzle in question is. In other words, you never see a situation where, purely to increase difficulty without changing the approach required, four turrets are used instead of three. Rather, four turrets are used because it makes it impossible to approach from the rear, requiring a different strategy. No forced variety, not even in numbers!
  • Fighting games take extensive care to balance the available characters, so that - if you're controlling for personal skill - you don't choose a character simply because they're better or worse. There is variety, but never the feeling that you're facing an opponent purely because they're harder than the last.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Magical Overdoses or: Why Skyrim Sucks

I was thinking yesterday about the problem of magic in games. My biggest problem with Skyrim is that the whole game just feels like I'm clicking on enemies until they die, with occasional choices affecting how fast they do so. The graphics are the only thing differentiating a lightning bolt from a gun.

That doesn't really work for me. I want to live in a magic world for a while! Dammit, that's what I paid for. Now, in the case of magic, it's a little bit of an inherently intractable problem - the feeling of magicalness is inherently a feeling of otherworldliness, so it gets destroyed when we're constantly exposed to something.

Which leads to the first strategy for defeating magical overdosing: Spread it out. From a gameplay experience point of view, this is what mana bars, recharge times, and limited charges on magic items do for us. You can even see this in non-magic games - raise your hand if you've ever saved your shots from the aerial bombardment weapon "just in case", only to never actually use them.

[at this point I raised my hand]

That's probably the most powerful counter to magical overdosing, because it cuts right to the core - if you limit the player's chances to use it, the player will perceive that rarity as differentiating it from their other problem-solving options. Of course, everything is relative - if magic is rare but so are bullets, then it won't feel any more special. In my recent experiences playing D&D I've been struck by how effective magic is hard for me to find - but effective combat strategies are just as hard for me to find. (keep your comments about my sub-optimal character design to yourself - I don't care.)

Of course, the other popular strategy is simply to make magic feel different in the game, by clever asset work - if magic is the only thing that makes flashy particle and light effects, then baller for you. Magic feels flashy! Once that gets assimilated into the player's system, though, flashy just seems like another option. Magical overdose again, game over.

The strategy that I haven't seen tried as much, which (I theorize) has much better resistance to magical overdosing, is to change up how the player produces their magical effects. Maybe they shoot by clicking the mouse button or pulling the trigger, but they cast magic by actually speaking words into the microphone - or entering mouse gestures, or tracing out patterns in the game floor. Maybe they have to actually stand up and strike a pose for the camera!

You have to use these techniques sparingly, because if the player constantly casts magic in these ways, then it just becomes a mouse gesture game, or a pattern-walking game, or a silly kinect game. In order to stand out, magic can never become the norm. You're constantly fighting a battle to avoid the player getting used to the magic.

[also, shut up, I haven't actually played Skyrim.]