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”)