December 3, 2009

NaNoWriMian's bad habits

Yup, I failed the NaNoWriMo AGAIN this year... Let's just say that quitting my job took more out of me than I thought, and that procrastination isn't just the French title of a Terry Pratchett's book. Still, between my meta-essay and the text itself, I wrote more than 15k words, which is a record. I'm still not giving up and will continue to write that novel. And search another idea for next year.

While on one of my blog-reading sprees, I encountered this today. And... Wished I had found it sooner.
It did hit some points home.

Let's see how...

Point 1:
I hate so called classics... If you want me NOT to read a book, tell me it's a classic that I must read for my personal culture. Which is ironic, because if someone hasn't read a book, or seen a movie I consider a classic, I’ll tell them that.
Not very bright, eh?
Still, I'm pretty sure I did use some old vernacular in my text. Because I thought I needed them...

Point 2:
The fudging writer's block... I encountered it quite a few times during my write-through, until I finally told myself to just write and see what would happen. Too bad, Time was up when I finally reached that point.
I just hope I can remember for the next time that "A text does not have to be perfect the first time and can always be revised".
After all, I have done it for some of my posts...
In my opinion, writing at least your ideas enables you to not misplace them. Then the hours you would have spent hours trying to rewind the Ariane's thread of your thoughts to the right point (while escaping the Minotaur of Just-screw-it) can be spent on polishing these ideas ores into a beautiful thing.
I didn't say I always did it, I just say it's a good thing.

Point 3:
The long paragraphs... I once wrote an essay for school that contained only three phrases, and was more than a page long. Gotta love semi-colons. Let's just say the teacher's reaction cured me of this, even if I'm aware I can become a little long winded. So, that's not something I learned in school...
If there's one thing I've learned, it's that you need to air your text. A wall of text is just impossible to digest except for some rare people. Think of a paragraph as what you might say between two breaths. I... think that's where the term "long-winded" I used might be coming from, in fact.

Point 4:
I admit I'm torn. I don't think it's necessary, nor do I think it should be banned. I think it's a matter of style, and character. If it fits what you're writing, then go on. If beating around the bush without saying anything directly is more of your style, I'm still with you.
I once was on a forum where it had been decided that profanity should be replaced with flower names. So you might encounter a "*tulip*ing *petunias* of the *rose*". Made for some flowery speeches, believe me. And still, it WAS relieving.
Your style is your style. That's what matters. You don't write for others, you write for you. How do you say it...? What's bred in the bone comes out in the blood?

Point 5:
I don't quote sources. Or if I do, it's that I'm writing an essay.
Going on a tangent here: I use brands in my texts. I use known authors, I use movie titles, to hammer down the fact that people are in a/the real world. But, I'm not convinced it really helps, considering that it's not something I often encounter in other works. What do you think? What makes you think a world is more than paper-thin?

Point 6:
That's hard... I'm an engineer by training, doubled as a marketer. I'm overtrained to analyse coldly, and to be detached. As such, I have never lost control of a character I was writing, as happens sometimes to other writers. I'd love to suddenly feel that these guys have a life of their own, and I'm just telling what's happening, or, perhaps, arguing with them. Still, I think they have their personalities that build over time, and some can be quite passionate.
I think I'll need to work on that.

Point 7:
This is true. And this is something that is true whenever something is created: writing, drawing, game design... Constructive criticism must be taken well, and taken into account, but in the end, you can't listen to everyone's ideas and advices. Why? Firstly, because it won't be your baby anymore, and if it's not yours, it's harder to like it (that... sounded a lot less against adoption in my mind). Secondly, because you can't please everyone and some advice will be contradictory.

I'll say it again: write (create) for you. Especially if you don't live from it. If you live from it, then it becomes a matter of personal belief... I personally think that if catering from time to time to the unwashed masses enables you to write what you want the rest of the time is ok. No one gets hurt, everyone's happy, what do you think?

November 4, 2009

NaNoWriMo 2009

Perhaps you have heard people talk about the NaNoWriMo. It's a massive task: write, in one month, a novel of 50 000 words. Yup, you read that right. That's 1667 words per day.

I tried (and failed) last year, but this year, things will be different. First, I've thought more about my story. I just need some last few research until it starts.

What do you mean, "It's already started" ?
You mean we're really the 4th of November? It's just not a nightmare I've been having?

Why, yes, I haven't written a thing ! You don't write before it starts, that would be cheating !

Yes, yes, okay, it has started and I should be writing... Geez, get off my back, already, people!

I guess I'll have some trouble writing the novel I had in mind. Find myself stuck when I try. Where I'm not stuck is when I write about what I want to write, the decisions I have to face, and how the thing is building itself block by block.

An essay on a novel. Writing about writing.

This should make me learn some things.

For the novel? Weeeell, there's always next year... :S

Still, wish me some fortitude on this task, I'm gonna need it.

September 7, 2009

Choice Matters

I've recently finished Overlord: Dark Legends for the Wii, and something felt off during my entire playthrough, compared to the original Overlord. Reading Challenges for Game Designers, and the blog Game Design Concepts helped me figure it out. It's really simple. It can be summed in one word: choice.

But this word has many consequences...

1) Choice?

Yes. Choice. As I discovered in the sources mentioned above, there are different kind of choices. Some are good in a game, some... Less so.
A meaningful choice has an impact on the course of the game. Also, you take one because you have at least an idea of what the consequences will be. A blind choice is one where you do not know what will happen when you make it. A meaningless choice is one that has no impact. Whether you take one path or the other, the rest of the game will be stricly identical. It might as well not have been there. An obvious choice has different outcomes, but one is so evidently superior to the others that you will always take it.

In Overlord, everything is about meaningful choices. Yes, you are an Overlord. But will you be the evilest on the block? Or will you help grannies cross the street, and then mangle the young whippersnapper that tried to run the two of you over? There are many moments where you have a choice between Evil and less Evil (or even, ewww... Good). At the start of the game, you are explained what the consequences of corruption(your evilness meter) will be : your spells will be more powerful, but you will gain less gold. There are different endings as well: almost good, quite bad, and evil.
In O:DL, the only choice you get while following the script is whether or not you will do the optional quests. How meaningful...

"What about your equipment? There are forges to be discovered in O:DL !", I hear some of you say, "so you can choose what to wear, at least"
Oh, yes, you can. You have different armors, with no clue as to what they do, for gold... You have different weapons, with some little clues as to what they do, for gold. So, you just buy the most expensive one. Because expensive = better, right? And you've got more gold than you can shake a stick at. Now, that, you see, is a blind choice. You just hope your decision is good.

How is it meaningful in Overlord, then? Aaaah, am I glad you asked...
First, you have to choose whether you will take an expensive piece of equipment, which is potentially stronger, or a weaker one, but far more affordable (and so, enabling you to buy more pieces of equipment). Because if in O:DL, you will soon have more gold than your really need while playing the game normally, in Overlord, it is not so.
Then, the equipment itself. They begin bare. You have to sacrifice minions to make them stronger (I'll get back to the concept). But if you sacrifice minions, which you summon using Lifeforce gathered from defeated enemies, maybe you won't have enough Lifeforce to play the game efficiently ...
Finally, what will you upgrade? For example, armors can give you more mana, more life, and a third choice that escapes me right now... But you can not upgrade them all to the max. Each armor can only accept so much minionic lifeforce. You must choose what is more important to you.
That way, your Overlord is equipped as YOU see fit. You know why you made every choice. You know what these choices entailed.

To change a blind choice into a meaningful choice, you need to give players data. Give them an idea of what each choice will result in. Or, if you want them to explore, give them feedback on their choices. What are the consequences of their choices? Delayed consequences are fine, as long as the player knows what action begat what.

That covers no choice, and blind choice.

Now, Let me tell you about Minions' Sacrifice and Minion's Sacrifice in O:DL.

In Overlord, part of the equipment upgrade process is to sacrifice minions. Not only do You get the armor you want, you also get to see a cool sequence where all the minions you've just decided to sacrifice run en masse and jump gleefully ("Woohoo!" "Yeehah!") in the bubbling cauldron of the forge. Imagine the sight when you've decided to sacrifice 400 of them (And the colors are respected, too). Check around you: people love that sequence. As I said, in 0:DL's forge, you just buy your equipment and are done with it. Maybe it's because the Wii can't handle it? Maybe. Doubtful.
Be aware that this paragraph was just a rant because they took out of the game something that added to the flavor and the atmosphere. The next one is about choice. Really.

So, they added Minion Sacrifice. How evil (and it's an honest "How evil", not a snarky one). You grab a minion by its throat, shake it to build up the pressure (thus called the TG&S: Throat-Grab & Shake), and then break his neck to replenish your Health/Mana. Very cool idea.

Now, how can you replenish your Health/Mana.
Breaking a minion's neck gives you a shade of Life or Mana depending on its type. Something like 10% of a bubble.
You can also sacrifice a minion by sending him in a Life/Mana well, which gives you 50% or 100% of a bubble. You can also wait for Life potions to drop when your minions destroy objects. They give you 50% or 100% of a bubble.
There are at least 2 of each well type per map. Maps are small, and you can backtrack without penalties. The more you are hurt, the more the potions drop.
Know what we have here? Those who said "an obvious choice" can join my minions and have a cookie ! Why break a minion's neck when you just have to backtrack a bit and sacrifice the same minion for more health?

To change an obvious choice into a meaningful choice, the Risk/Reward ratio of each choice must be close(r). For example, if there were less Life Wells, snapping the neck of a minion for less life might be interesting if I am pressed for time. Provided it replenishes enough.

You can also TG&S a minion, and then release it in a direction of your control. After a (short) time, he will explode. You're told that you can destroy some barriers with it. You encounter 3 of them in the zone where you're told that, and then never see them again.

TG&S&E is also advertised as an attack move, but the process of grabbing, shaking and sending is very long. So either your other minions are doing nothing while you do it, or they have already killed the foes they were sent on before your minion bomb is ready.

Again, the obvious choice is not to use it beyond the barriers...

Is there a meaningful choice in O:DL? I honestly can not recall. To their credit, I can't find a meaningless choice either.

After this lengthy demonstration, I'm sure you're asking yourself: ok, but why does choice matters?

2) Connection and Feedback

I'm not talking about the controllers. I'm talking about the player, and his relation to the character he's playing.

When there are no meaningful choices, I find it's hard to relate to the character I'm playing. He's just a puppet on strings. I'm controlling it, but someone else is controlling my actions. I follow the script.

But when I get to make choices that do matter, it gets different. He becomes my character. My avatar. Anything that happens to him, or people close to him (especially when they're close because of my choices) is important to me.

In Overlord, as you advance in the story, your tower evolves because of your choices. It gets rebuilt. New rooms are opened, new decorations that you buy, trophies that you pilfer. You can't have everything, so what is there is what you've chosen to be there. It becomes your tower, an extension of your Overlord. Plus, you get to have a cool mistress.
Incidentally, this is also where you begin everytime you launch the game. So, the first thing you see is everything you have done so far. A good way to congratulate the player, and a good way to make him want more.

In O:DL, you do start in the same place (it's not your tower, it feels more like the cellar of the castle, but whatever). But it does not change, apart from the mana/blood/minion stonesthat get stacked around your throne. These stacks feel small compared to the size of the room, and the room in itself feels drab. You don't feel any need to stay here, whereas in Overlord, it is fun to simply walk the halls of your tower basking in your Overlordness.

July 27, 2009

Game Design Challenge

I found a very interesting blog named Game Design Challenges through an article by Tesh. The blog is manned by Brenda Brathwaite Whose blog is here and Ian Schreiber whose blog is there. The blog is meant as a course on game design, be it tabletop, card, or video games and is very interesting. The book which is par for the course and the course itself do pose some challenges for aspiring game designers.

So here's my take on the first challenge: building a "race to the end" game.

Without further delay, let me give you:


After some earthquake unearthes interesting stones on the slope of a volcano, a score of Geologists decide to get a closer look and make a friendly wager on the stones each will find. But... doesn't this earthquake hint at an awakening of the volcano in the near future?

Core Mechanic:
-> Race to the end
-> Resource gathering/management


The field is divided in 3 "tiers" on top of each other. Yous tart from the bottom, and the closer you get to the summit, the more chances you have of unearthing quality stones.

There is the "easy" way, which snakes from bottom to top, and the "hard and fast" ways (2 and 4 cases long) which a direct.

Material needed to play:
-> 1-4 players. Yep, you can play alone ! Even here, soloists are welcome ! So... 4 pawns.
-> Pieces to be put on the board. Each has a "Lava" side and a side with either dirt, a rift, or a number (1, 2, or 4)
-> Green "Mining" cards containing simple rocks (0 points), Pyrite (1) and a flawed sapphyr (3)
-> Orange "Mining" cards containing one simple rock (0), some pyrite (1), some gold (2), and some strange fossils (3)
-> Red "Mining" cards containing some unique rocky formations (4), diverse precious stone (5) and a Dead Sea Scroll (15)
-> 8 "Equipment" cards (rope, ice pick, 10 feet pole...)

The board pieces are shuffled, then randomly placed on the board with the "Lava" side up. Once they are all on the board, turn them on the other side.
All the "Mining" cards are shuffled, and the three corresponding stacks are built.
Equipment cards are shuffled, for every player missing, draw out 2 cards and get them out of the game. Then, the first player pickes one, so does the second, etc until no more cards remain.
Place all the pawns at the bottom of the slope.


First part: the Ascension
Each turn, a character gets alloted 4 Action Points. Using these, a character can (Action costs are indicated in the relevant sections):
-> Climb
-> Mine
-> Cheer
-> Hinder
A character does not have to use all its AP in one turn. It is possible to start spending APs on an action during one turn, and finish on the next, but you have to finish your action, and only get the result once the points are spent.

Climbing the easy way costs 1 AP per square
The "Hard and Fast" slopes cost 2 APs for each square you advance, unless the character has the ice pick, which reduce the cost to 3 APs per 2 squares
On a rift, a character needs 3 APs to advance, unless with the 10 feet pole, which reduces the cost to 2 APs.
Characters are free to go up or down the slope.

On squares with a number, spending that AP amount enables you to draw 1 card (on the "1" and "2" squares) or 2 cards (on the "4" squares) in the corresponding stack (green for the first tier, orange for the middle, red for the high tier)
There is no limit to the amount of stones a character can carry.
The mining pick enables you to draw an additional card for 1 AP. You must then choose and discard one of the additional cards.

A character can cheer another. When being cheered, a character must select one of its stone and give it the to the cheerer. The cheerer loses as many APs as the value of the stone (potentially making him lose turns if he loses more than 4 APs), while the cheeree gains as many APs (usable immediately, with no upper limit).
If equipped with the rope, the cheerer only loses 2 APs for every 3 he should have lost. The cheree still gains as many.
If equipped with the bright suit, the cheree gains an additional AP.

If a character lands on another character's square, he can hinder him by spending 1 AP, making the other lose 2 APs.
If equipped with the sieve, alternatively, he can draw a random stone from the character for 2 APs, instead of hindering him.

As stones are collected, the total value of the stones must be tracked: as soon as the number gets bigger than 20, the eruption begins !

Second part: the Descent
From now on, the eruption has started, and lave begins to run down the slope. At each turn's start, lava advances ((Total accumulated points)-20) squares (flip each piece to show its "Lava" side). Lava comes down every slope at the same time (but at the same rate). If Lava reaches a character, he's immediately immolated (unless he has the Lava Suit, which saves him for one turn), as well as his equipment and mined stones. They still count for the lava's speed.

The character's still have 4 APs and the same action.
But now, the "Hard & Fast" slopes can be climbed down at the rate of 2 squares per AP. However, these slopes are so steep that the character loses 1 random stone for each AP spent. Unless he has big pockets, which saves the first stone that should be lost.

The game ends when no more characters are on the board. The winner is the geologist with the biggest amount of points. In the case of a tie, the one with the least amount of stones wins.

July 21, 2009

Unlocking the LEGO box

I’ve been playing quite a lot of Batman LEGO these last days, finishing the main adventure for both heroes and villains, and reaching something like 80% of completion. But, in the last days, some design decisions have become quite prominent to me, some in good, some in bad.

First, the good: deadly is deadly.
In the LEGO Batman universe, hazards are pretty consistent either for your characters or for the enemies. Which means that radioactive stuff or fumes kills them as much as it kills you, and glacial fumes freeze you and them as well. It’s pretty much a detail, but it made a boss fight far easier for me through a stroke of luck: in the level against Catwoman and the penguin, Catwoman is only a sidekick. You can not beat her with your fists: she will run away from you when hurt, and come back later. And believe me, she can be a pain.
But, as I was exploring the area, one of my hits sent her flying in a patch of radioactive goo. And before my eyes, she dissolved… No more sidekick for the penguin ! Needless to say, the fight went pretty much downhill for him after that (not that he was really winning before that event…)

I like when games have the same set of rules for you and for your enemies. You do not feel arbitrarily limited in your interaction with the world, you do not feel that everything is stacked against you.
Also, I find it helps with the suspension of disbelief: the gameworld is logical.

After that, my beef is with the unlocking system. No, not so much the system (having to use multiple characters abilities to reach a hidden brick that unlocks something, that’s something the Explorer and Achiever in me do like) than the unlocks themselves.

Let’s start with the ridiculous: the multipliers bonus.
In the game, you collect studs, which are used as a currency to buy just about everything: additional characters and vehicles, data, and upgrades (once they have been unlocked through hidden bricks in each level). Some of these upgrades are multipliers: x2, x4, up to x10. The first one costs 1 000 000, the last one 5 000 000.
My first (logical) thought was “Each one will replace the lesser one” or “only one may be active at a time”. A simple calculation showed me that buying them in order would cost me, not 15 000 000 studs, but 4 041 666. Better than buying the 5x directly.
You can imagine my surprise when, buyin the x4, I see the x2 on my screen changing to a x8. Long story short, I reached a ludicrous x640 modifier, making all my studs needs moot (but not my stud’s… nevermind).

This, I did not like. Why? Because up to now, I had choices to make whenever I bought something. I did not have enough money, so every time, I had to ask myself what I wanted to buy. That was my story. Now… Not so much… I just had a laundry list of things to buy, and the limiting factor was to unlock them…
To their defense, it is possible to disable these. I did, but not before going on a destruction spree due the power rush it gave me. Kind of like when Tabula Rasa offered a +2000% XP bonus some weeks before closing down. I gained 7 levels in one evening, then was left with a sour taste in my mouth, having outleveled content I wanted to enjoy.
Power rush is a dangerous thing for the weak-minded... I never said I was perfect !

My next gripe is with suit upgrades.
Most, if not all of them, are Nice-to-Haves: more targets with a batarang, swifter construction and so on. Not gamebreaking, but reducing the time needed for some actions that can be considered “less fun”, thus improving the fun proportion. I’m cool with that.
But then, why is their use limited to the free mode ?! If I take the time to redo a level to unlock an upgrade I’m interested in, why must I be punished by not being able to use it during the story mode, thus enabling me to enjoy the story more?

There was also a bit of cutscene power upgrade, where villains tend to have their abilities upgraded when you’re against them (Catwoman makes huge jump, moth man can glide much longer), but it’s more nitpicking than griping. It’s a minor detail than doesn’t really break the suspension of disbelief.

So, in short, I prefer to see games:
-> Where the rules are the same for the player characters and for the non-player characters.
-> Where upgrades do not suddenly break the game, making everything trivial, or redundant
-> Where, if I take the time to achieve something, I’m awarded the achievement’s result for the rest of the game

June 18, 2009

Plants vs Zombies: a recipe for success

Everybody and their brother is talking about Plants vs Zombies, so I might as well join the crowd...
What's more, I've finished the game and did almost all of the puzzles/minigames/survivals. So I can comment on the game as a whole.

I have liked that game from the first ten seconds and have played it for quite some time after I bought it. There are at least 4 people who are now playing it because of me. Viral marketing and word of mouth are powerful tools indeed.

The graphisms are cute and grow on you, the gameplay is easy to learn (and, "sadly" easy to master), the music is fine (and stays in your head...), and you will laugh many times over the course of the game.

There are many interesting things in this game.
First, your options grow as you advance in the game (for a very interesting article on progression of gameplay, in french, go here). Some grow as you advance in the game, some must be bought and some must be discovered. And most of the time, the new option will be needed the round BEFORE you get it. That way, the game lets you learn without choking you with too many options at once, and makes you understand how useful each new plant is. My girlfriend, who's not a gamer (yet; remember the girlfriend experiments ?) was never lost in terms of possibilities offered.

What's more, you have a limit on how many plants you can have on each level. So rapidly, you have choices to make, and your playstyle will emerge: want to slow them down? Do Area of Effet damage? Do huge single damage? Have one time autokills?

This led to an interesting discovery: No one plays the same way, and watching others play can make you learn how to improve yourself. For example, at first, I started by planting as many sunflowers as I can (up to 12, most of the time) (for those who haven't played, sunflowers give you sun, which is the resource used to install new plants; money is only used to buy power-ups between each level) and peashooters to stop zombies. She started by planting sunflowers too, but then, instead of peashooters, she used potato mines, one-time bombs that takes some time to arm themselves, have a very long recharging time and cost practically nothing.
As the 3-4 first zombies are quite apart in terms of time, you can use potato mines for each of them. This led to her having far more money than I did subsequently, enabling her to organise her defense more efficiently (the PvZ girlfriend experiment will come at a later time). Mainly, enabling her to put more costly, but also more powerful, plants. Needless to say, I borrowed that strategy.

Every 5 levels, the game's rythm is suddenly changed with a mini game. You will go bowling, play whack-a-mole, or have your plants on a treadmill. That way, monotony can't set in. And additionnaly, the end of each section of the game (5 sections of 10 levels) is identical for every players, enabling developers to make sure that everybody gets the same chance to win the section, grinders and other players alike.

The game is very easy to grasp. Even people not used to playing can. And it's cute enough to grab a bunch of people, and interesting enough to latch onto them.
It's also very forgiving in the first levels: we discovered that when a zombie reaches one of your lawn mowers (and gets dissected by said lawn mower), no other zombies appeared on that line. It struck me when she let zombies reach 3 of her lawn mowers, and the subsequent "Huge wave" was only on the 2 remaining lines. IMO, it's a good thing, so beginners don't grow frustrated too soon.

But it was clearly too easy for me. I finished the adventure with perhaps one or two stressful moments. I never lost once. Even in the second run, which is harder (more on that later). And I'm not hardcore. It's as much a good thing as it is a bad one.

Once you have advanced enough in the game, you unlock some mini-games. The bulk of them, as well as the puzzle mode and survival mode, are unlocked when you finish the game. Many of these games are winks to other popular games: you have a bejeweled-like game of "match 3 plants" while zombies are trying to eat them, you have an aquarium game related to the first game the developer made, etc... The concept "defend from zombies with plants" was pushed very far, changing how you killed zombies, or how you got plants, or how you got sun, etc.

One of the puzzle, strangely, is the one I played almost as much as the basic game: You play as the zombies, trying to get to the house, against randomly generated fields of plants. This role reversal is an excellent idea, enabling you to see just how efficient each zombie can be, and what plants are especially efficient against them. So you learn how to improve your stategies in the normal game.

Finally, there is a great attention to details. You can see how much a zombie has been damaged, enabling you to see how much of a danger they still are. Frozen peas do not catch fire when going trough the stump, they simply unfreeze. As well, frozen zombies defreeze when hit by a burning pea. So you must adapt you strategy accordingly. Mushrooms sleep during the day.
Many plants are good in standalone, but perfect with others. Chomper eat zombies, but then have to masticate some time, during which they are vulnerable. Put a nut before them, and they'll have enough time to swallow, and eat again. So the game encourages you to try many things.
What’s more, rarely are plants “outdated”, perhaps only the original peashooter can be described as such. All of the others have their use, advantages, and disadvantages. This is rare enough that it warrants to be said.

Finally, some are just for fun. Zombies make a face when eating garlic. When exploded, they
blink before falling into ashes. I could go on.

So, apart from the fact that I found it a bit too easy, I can’t really find any faults to that game. It was well worth the 20$ I forked for it. There are many games that cost me more, and that I enjoyed less…

May 19, 2009

Originality FTW: 2 free indie games

I’ve lost all my bookmarks. As a consequence, I’ve lost many blogs that I’m not sure I’ll find again… As an added consequence, links to articles that jumpstarted my thoughts have been lost too… (UPDATE: found them with a little research, in fact :) )

There are 2 free games I’ve downloaded some time ago that I only recently found the time to play with. These are Eversion and Barkley Shut Up and Jam Gaiden.
I found Eversion through Chris Survival Horror Quest blog here [Also, go check his article on Game score vs game sales which is vaaaary interesting]
As for BSU&JG, it comes from here.

Eversion is a platform “save the princess” game cute as hell with a twist: on some parts of each level, you can use the Evert key to change somewhat the level, and gives you access to some parts. I’ll leave the surprise for now, but there will be spoilers later in the article with my thoughts.

Barkley Shut Up and Jam Gaiden is a RPG created with RPG Maker. You play as Charles Barkley, renowned basketball player in our world. But in BSUaJG, Barkley unleashed some years ago a Chaos Dunk during a match, which caused the death of millions of people, made basketball a forbidden game, and saw the lynching of quite a number of basketball players. But… Recently, an organisation unleashed a Chaos Dunk, for which you are blamed. It is time to change the world.

Spoilers and thoughts ahead, now. You have been warned !
One last time: [SPOILERS] !

Let’s start with Eversion. The Evert key changes the landscape towards a grimmer world. It starts cute, with bright colors, an innocent music, and so on. Then, the first time you hit the Evert key, the world gets a bit blander. Enemies don’t smile as much. The music isn’t so joyful. But clouds can be walked on, now, and so you can finish the level. Everything is fine, right?

Nope. It will only get worse. Monsters finally get hideous, additional hazards appear, the music gets disturbing, and then disappears totally, making you react to the slightest sudden noise (and there will be). Background turns to red. The text and score gets crypted. You get the idea.

The game itself is moderately difficult (very difficult for people like me who are bad at platformers), but you have infinite lives to plod through. You learn from your mistakes, and continue. Each level you finish, you can start from if you stop the game. So, it’s made to make you continue, and come back. Also, death is part of the equation, as some of the crystals you collect on your way are placed such as you can only suicide yourself after collecting them (or else, I’m really terrible at platformers, which is also a possibility).

Even if you manage to finish the game (took me an hour or so), it is not a happy ending unless you have found all the crystals in the game. Which requires a lot of going back, everting back and forth, and dying; yes, each crystal you collect, you get to keep, even if you die. And everting points being invisible until you step on them… Have fun, Explorers and Achievers !

What I find interesting in the game is that everything is aimed towards the mood and setting. You start with something you know (cutesy Mario-like platform) and see it turn into something very dark and disturbing. Which, as Chris says, may be the key to many successful horror movies or games. The Evert key, of course, the occasional details (In the 3rd or 4th world, hitting a smiling block is necessary to change the world and advance. The block’s eyes POP when you hit it…) but also the dark screen after each death. It starts innocuously (“Ready!”). Then, as you progress, you get a black screen with no words. Then a sudden “game over” (but you can still play), a “Ready! To die” and so on. Much thought was given on the immersion of the player, and the setting of the mood.

And… You can not stop wanting to see how far it will go, even if the game may be frustrating with its insta-death mechanism.

I didn’t get the happy ending yet, but sadly spoiled myself with youtube inadvertently. I won’t spoil you, though. I’m cool like that :).

I guess Barkley Shut Up and Jam Gaiden will wait for a later post !

May 6, 2009

[Insert Blank Slate Joke here]

I know, I know, the closing of Tabula Rasa is sooooo 2 months old. But I’ve got things I have to get off my chest… Because, you see, I LIKED Tabula Rasa !
Of the different MMORPG I played (which to date, are DAoC, WoW and GW. I’ve made a lot of above-the-shoulder EQ watching), it’s the one I enjoyed the most. But I came in late, and only enjoyed it for its last 2 months…

There are many good articles on that game, like Mike Darg's serie on it (part 1, part 2, and part 3)

Some from people that were part of the team, like Adam Martin, or some that were just in the same company, like Scott Jennings

And, to my mind, it was a good game, at least in the end, with design decisions that I’d like to see again…

1) Immersion
I’m not an immersion fanboy. But still, having monsters *pop* suddenly out of nowhere, or having NPCs standing in one place day in and day out is always kinda grating for me. Even if knowing that Joe Blacksmith is always there to buy my junk makes my life easier.
But here, they really had an attention for details: Banes were teleported from dropships, tripods were dropped from the sky as metal “seeds” that bloomed in a mechanical monstrosity, pyrosaurs were born in a lava blast.
And striders clawed themselves from the ground… Gods above, if I have to remember a single “wow” moment, it will be the time a strider clawed its way from right under my feet. At the time, facing a strider alone was almost sure death for me. You can imagine how I ran…
NPCs did rounds in the camp. They chatted with one another when they crossed paths. They fought with you in the entire map instead of only in camps. Planets were coherent. No tundra near a jungle here, nu-hu.
The game was consistent. Everything had a reason to be. And, the little spawning animations were awe-inspiring in their own right, and had the added value of giving you time to prepare yourself at least mentally.

2) Dynamic maps
Control Points… Bases which could either belong to your army, or to the banes, which needed to be conquered, or defended from invaders. CPs were always great moments for me. Because almost every time, I wasn’t alone doing it. Granted, sometimes, there were just NPCs, but I was part of a team, part of a squad. We wouldn’t let these goddman banes take our goddman bases, or keeping their goddamn nodes on our goddamn planets, nosiree. And sometimes, taking these points unlocked quests, or instances.
Yes, the constant assaults of the Banes were perhaps a bit too frequent, yes, as Richard Bartle said concerning WAR “RvR is never resolved, so it is pointless”. Yes, there was a statu quo.
I didn’t say it was perfect.
But it was an incentive for people to play together without forcing you to group.
Dynamic story points would have been interesting (like in Asheron’s Call, if I understand correctly). For example, a huge Bane base with heavy defence needing a massive and cohesive player army to bring it down, which would have been a unique moment in play. I know it’s much more work for developers, but if they did it in AC or EQ, why can’t they do it now?

3) A good incentive to group
Yes, you could solo. I did a good part of the 36 levels I gained that way. But I did all instances in groups, mainly PUGs.
In most games I tried, when you group, XP per kill is divided by the number of people in the group. Quite fast, you gain a trickle of experience, and even if you kill more mobs per second than before, it’s still not enough to leverage. In TR, you had a “group bonus” to XP that got bigger the more you were. True, XP was still divided, but with the bonus, it was close to when you soloed. And as you plowed through monsters more quickly, you had a rage bonus on top of that.
Not to mention that the different classes played quite well together.

4) The community

… You just laughed, didn’t you?
Ok, it’s not a design decision, and I’m aware that it was linked with the fact that the game was doomed and thus only fans stayed. But still, I encountered many helpful people when I had questions, I never had any trouble in finding a group, and 95% of the time, I had fun with that group. That’s far more than I can say about WoW for example…

5) The cloning system
Not used as intended, but it allowed me to play with friends that had been playing for far longer. As they had clones at lower levels, we could play together even if we weren’t at the same level.
Still, I think I’d prefer something à la CoH and their mentoring system (the sidekick gets boosted to the level of the master, or the other way around, I don’t really know) to help people play together whenever they want. As I said, ot used as intended ^^
Also, it allowed you to level alts without having to redo the whole game (something that some people really loathe as they are here only for the “endgame”)

6) The weapons
I really felt that all weapons were different and had their pros and cons. Some did AoE damage, others had a long range, or ignored armor. Not only that, but you did not use 2 different weapons the same way (auto attack, anyone?). Everyone could find their preferred style, and everyone was different. Just because you could use a higher tier weapon did not mean you had to, as lower tier weapons could still pack a punch.
Also, I liked the fact that you could have 5 different weapons on quickwield buttons, enabling you to adapt to a good range of situations

7) Dynamic fighting

No auto aim, here. You aim at your enemy, and then you shoot. Some weapons needed a longer time to aim than others, and you had to decide whether to stay unmoving, aiming faster, or moving, so the enemy could not draw a bead on you. Yes, you used action buttons, but at the same time, you did aim and shoot. I was far more “awake” than in most MMOs. And the fact that the more enemies you killed, the greater the experience multiplier was a real incentive to continue.
Also, as soon as you were out of combat, the regenerative qualities of your character were greatly enhanced, enabling you to go back into the action quickly.

8) A dedicated team
I know, that’s no design decision… But it is still important !
Even though the game was doomed, the developers continued to issue bug fixing, and to add content during the last throes of the game instead of just letting it die. You have got to respect that… Alo, they did pay attention to their customers, from what I’ve read. I mean, adding gloves and a boxing arena because some players did pistolbutt one another for fun? I find that cool.

9) Choices in quests
Choices, dammit ! You did a quest, and you could have 2 different outcomes based on your decisions. Would you take the young pacifist to be trained as a soldier, or let him become a shaman, serving his people in a way that more befitted him?
Did you poison the bane to make him talk, or try to gain its confidence?
That way, your character lives ITS story. It’s not exactly the same as Joe Soldier on your left..
True, there weren’t many choices, and some had no reason (the Bane that asks you to give him the serum, because the disease kills banes as well… I have no reason to feel empathy to these creatures, why should I begin now? It’s a shame, it could have been a very interesting dilemma). But there were choices, and that is a step in the right direction.

Damn, 9… 10 would have been so perfect !

Others have talked far better than I did of the downside effects of being able to fight quasi non stop, with no downtime: (I’ll update as soon as I find the links again…)

So I’ll leave you with the fact that I hope the people working on that project have been able to find something else to work on, and that they will be as dedicated. Let’s just hope their next project does not see its core idea changed twice, and a too early release (meaning “compared to the moment a fun core was found”)

April 22, 2009

The Girlfriend Experiment (Part 2)

After the first experiments, she asked me to find her “cute” games (which got a friend’s reaction “doesn’t she want good games instead?”). So, what was the next type of game she tried?
Women <___<… EXPERIMENT 3: Horror/Survival

Left 4 Dead (PC):
So… On the left, a game where you must aim and shoot at zombies using a mouse. Running zombies. With creatures with special powers. On the right, a girl who gets easily lost and never aimed with a mouse. A girl who gets easily scared. Or grossed.
Can you guess the result?
I saw, during that experiment, a lot of ceiling. And a lot of floor. I heard screams, too. But she kept on, and kept on, and kept on. I think it’s the game she played the longest time “alone”. I only took the mouse once because she was completely lost.
What is sure is that she had a LOT of fun. She even, ultimately, insisted that I buy it. She hasn’t played it again yet, but she wants to.

What I learned:
- The keyboard is VERY complicated for her. She kept using one finger to move instead of three, and lost much time (and health) because of it. Using the arrows was less alien than WASD, but still.
- She clearly loved to freak in front of the running horde, and hates boomers…

Resident Evil 4 (Wii)
They were two. And they screamed like banshees. My ears do still hurt, but it was a fun session.
In RE4, the zombies are slower. And the game is far less forgiving than L4D. And the fear is different too. It’s the fear of turning around and seeing something that crept on you while you were not watching.
She was more in control than in L4D even if the aiming mechanism of RE4 is very strange.
She wants to play again, too. But she did not keep on as much as in L4D

What I learned:
- Clearly, the Wii controller is easier to get…

EXPERIMENT 4: Kingdom Hearts (PS2)
This time, it was a cute game. With the Disney characters. How wrong could it get?
Well, plenty. The main problem came from the controller: there were far too many buttons for her to keep track of, and so she was constantly forgetting what did what. And, truth be told, the pacing of KH at the beginning is very very slow… She lost her concentration more than once, and I ended playing a good portion of the beginning. She hasn’t played it again yet, and does not show any intention of doing so. Or, if she can meet Mickey. And we all know (at least, those who played it through) how difficult that can be.

What I learned:
- Too many buttons = too much complexity. As of now, it’s the only game she has played on the PS2, and the only one she had shown any interest in. I must find that post on another blog where the author said that each generation brought more complex controllers, as if there were no new gamers out there (beside the young generation, who understand things far more quickly than we do, dagnabbit!!)
- “Cute game” does not mean “I’m sold”
- The pacing of a game, especially at the beginning is VERY important to keep someone interested, ESPECIALLY someone who does not play often and lose concentration quickly…

Well, this is starting to get TLDR, so stay tuned for part 3, where we’ll speak of Mario Kart Wii and Boom Blox. I tell you, Wii is the console to get people gaming !

April 6, 2009

The Girlfriend experiment (Part 1)

As I said on Wiqd blog, I have a great girlfriend, cute, bubbly, brilliant, you name it. And I really like being with her.
What’s the point of this? She’s not a gamer. She almost never played any game, a few Adventure or city building games here and there, like Caesar 3 or Monkey island. But it’s now been years since she played any. And she’s willing to try again, as she sees it’s a major hobby of mine.
So, I have at home an almost complete newbie of the female kind. What an interesting test subject, isn’t it ?

EXPERIMENT 1 : Super Smash Bros Brawl (Wii)

I started with SSBB, figuring the Wii controller was easier to get than others (Must find the link of the blogger who was saying that controllers got more complicated with each generation). SSBB may not be the best game to ease someone back in that hobby, but it has a secret weapon : Kirby.
If you don’t know who Kirby is, it’s him, on the left, cute as hell, with the ability to gobble his enemies and steal their powers. He can also fly, and has starred in many games since 1992. He’s also a strong character in SSBB, in my opinion.
Long story short, the first games were a slaughter for her… She would make him jump and then fly, happily laughing at the noise he makes while flying (a sort of « Poit ! Poit ! Poit ! »), not caring one bit about the fights going on downstairs.
Then, she discovered she could eat people. That became phase 2. She would try to gobble everyone, once again laughing while doing so, and would do nothing else, trying to see the different haircuts it gave to her character.
But when she really tried to fight, we were far too strong for her…
It left her wanting for more.

Experiment successful.

What I learned :
- She would not play without me, or at least without other people playing with her. Games are more of a social moment for her
- She would not always play the game as it was intended

EXPERIMENT 2 : Mini-games (Rabbid Rabbits 1, 2 and 3 & Wario party) (Wii)

To that day, the third game is her favorite game, I think, particularly the snow race. She clearly has a hard time getting the games, but improved herself over time (by comparison, another friend, who was a gamer but stopped a long time ago, understands more quickly what’s to be done, but reaches an improvement plateau much more quickly). She loves it and wants to play it every time we see the friends who possess those games.

What I learned :
- She needs time to understand how a specific game works. Wario Party games are horrible for her, for example, leaving her no margin for error and no time to improve
- I get pounced when I win too often <___<

Bear in mind, I'm not saying every new gamer is like she is. But I find it interesting that she needs much more time than I do to understand a game and then play it.

Part 2 will deal with horror/Survival games, with Kingdom Hearts and with PC and PS2 games...

March 24, 2009

Replay it again, Sam ! (part 2)

Welcome to the second part of this post ! The first part was about replaying a game in a short window of time. The following reasons are better suited when some time has already passed…

Or “Hey, remember when..?”

Replaying a game after some months, or years have passed, means that you liked something about the game. Was it the design? The characters? The world? Whatever. But something compels you to come back again, to something you already mainly know.

But… How long will you play? Most people I have asked answered that they will only dip their foot in the pool, so to speak, and rarely go frolicking for a long time. One evening, maybe a weekend, rarely more. I even know some people who keep save games located just before a particular event they liked and will only play through that event.
In the end, you just want a quick trip down Memory lane, but you do not need to go through all its mazes: you already know them, after all…


Here, you come back with a clear challenge in mind, self imposed. In the first part, I had announced that this would be “Perfection”, but perfection is only one of many challenges you can set yourself.
I remember playing Max Payne 2 again with a friend, but only some levels (the dream sequences, mainly), trying to do them as fast as possible, looking for that extra second to spare…
I remember seeing a walkthrough explaining how to go through Chrono Trigger while retaining Chrono at level 1…
“Can I do it?”
Big question. But people like to try, to brag, or just to know that yes, they can.

The duration has no impact: you have a goal, you want to reach it.


So, what did we learn?
First, let me state that this article wasn’t just about me: I asked some friends and people for their input (that’s how “Perfection” became ”Challenges”; thanks for that, E-Link! ), which mainly confirmed what I thought.

1°) Many people will play immediately through a game again if it unlocked content (playable or not), and if the length of the new playthrough isn’t too long.
2°) Many people will play immediately through the same game again when they can retain their data, to see how strong their character is. BUT most will stop a long time before the end.
3°) Replaying in higher difficulty appeals to some gamers, but not all. Less so if it’s the exact same game, and only the enemy’s strength varies.
4°) Players are adept at creating their own challenges when a game offers none anymore
5°) Sometimes, players like to come back to something they know, just to see if it’s still the same…

Food for thought, and discussion, I hope ;)

March 18, 2009

Replay It again, Sam ! (part 1)

Recently, I started to think about replayability, mainly because I have a game idea that needs you to live the same day again and again. But why do people replay games? And what games do they replay?

I have identified 3 types:
- Unlocking content
- Play in Higher difficulty
- Nostalgia
- Perfection

Unlocking Content

Many developers entice you to finish their game at least once in order to unlock some additional content. It can be higher levels of difficulty (I will tackle this later), more content to play in/with, replaying the game while keeping your data from the previous game, or bonus content.

More content to play in/with (Dynasty Warriors, Smash Bros)
Here, each playthrough grants you additional characters, weapons, areas, what have you, with which to play again
It worked for me in Smash Bros Brawl and Dynasty Warriors 5. It did not in DW4
It worked in the first 2 because they could be played in their entirety in 20 minutes to 3 hours. And, I did not play through the exact same content from one character to the next.
While in DW4, it was the same scenario for each character of a same kingdom, and it took more than 10 hours to finish

So, I don’t mind replaying something identical to unlock something if it does not last more than a few minutes (it can also keep me glued for hours because “I’ll just do one more). If it lasts more than half an hour, then it must be at least slightly different from one go to the next.

Replaying your game while keeping data from the previous (Some Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, Lufia)
Also known as “New Game +”.
Here, you killed the final boss. But why not play the adventure again retaining all your godlike powers?
It did not work for me for either of these games. I need a challenge to keep being excited, and there was clearly none (although trying to kill Lavos at different moments in the game was quite interesting.
Most of the time (And I’m not the only one I know) I’ll try the new game + for a couple of hours, and then the game will go in the shelves…

So, I do mind brrezing through a game without any challenge. I won’t mind it if it opens interesting new avenues of Gameplay.

Bonus content (God of War, Samurai Warriors)
Here, we are talking about elements around the game itself: scenes cut from the final game, concept arts, designers’ anecdotes.

Whatever they be, I make it a point to look at them all. I’m impressed by what can be done in a game, and will always be a sucker for behind-the-scene kind of data.
As for art, well, I like it, so what’s more to say?
Would I replay a game for that?
Once again, it depends on the length. 2 to 3 hours for each replay seems to be my limit.

Play in Higher difficulty

Starting fresh (God of War, Kingdom Hearts, Duke Nukem 3D, Alone in the Dark)
Here, you play through the same game from the get go. But the enemies are stronger, you do not have the same amount of ammo, not so much health, etc.
I rarely play games where I start fresh at a higher difficulty. I’ve already lived the story once, and don’t want to do it again so soon. Truth to tell, if the initial difficulty I’ve selected is too low, I’ll start again at a higher one. And most of the time, I won’t be able to play it at a higher difficulty. Not good enough, you see?

Keeping your previous data with you (Diablo, Titan Quest)
Ah, the infamous Hardcore Level…
You keep the character you previously played with all his enhancements, but the enemies are stronger too (and so is the loot).

Titan Quest is the only game I did this. And Diablo would have been too, had I been able to play it at the time. Why? Because the story isn’t really important the second time. You play for the phat lewt, and to improve your character still more. That said, I’m not sure I would go through the 3rd difficulty Level…

Different content (TimeSplitters 2)
An interesting approach I only saw in that game: the higher the difficulty, the longer and more difficult the levels. There are more things to do, more ground to cover, more enemies, of course…

As a consequence, I’ve played it in normal, and then hard, when I discovered this feature… But in the end, the story stats the same…

This is starting to become a bit long winded, so we'll cut it in 2, shall we?