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.