Friday, 26 September 2014

Realism in games: Space simulators

Space, the final frontier. Even within the gaming community. There are two games that stand out from a realistic perspective; Orbiter and Kerbal Space Program - or KSP for short. Both use newtonian physics and have some very convincing graphics to make the gamer's experience more realistic.

There are three types of realism; visually - where the graphics are crisp, detailed and textured and objects move seamlessly, Intelligently - by which artificial intelligence is well programmed so the player feels he or she is playing with other living people, or when you are given a 'hint' just when you need it, and finally, Physically - where the coding of the game almost entirely emulates the real world forces of physics, meaning objects interact almost exactly how they would in real life.

Orbiter was first published in 2000 (yes, its old) and was praised for its realistic physics engine which allowed players to try and re-create real life scenarios such as a Soyuz TMA launch or the flight of the Discovery shuttle with breathtaking realism. It is used to teach physics to students as well as to gamers who learn inadvertently how to alter the trajectory of a space vehicle. It was last updated in 2010 and remains one of the most (if not the most) realistic comercially availble space simulators of all time. Whlie playing Orbiter i found i became a little bored because there was a certain lack of creativity gamers enjoy participating in, like designing my own rocket or creating an avatar. I then stumbled apon KSP.

KSP is also a space flight simulator but it is more of a game than a simulator. There are little people called kerbals which you can take with you on missions you decide, in rockets you build, which you then fly. There is a feeling of control when you launch a 1,000,000 Kg rocket aimed at the moon which  enjoyable at the very least.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

The Difference Between Challenging and Difficult

You may mistake challenging and difficult as being synonymous, but acknowledging the difference is key in the enjoyment and appeal of a game. A challenge is the test of your ability, whereas difficulty requires great effort or skill in order to accomplish a task, often requiring a lot of time. Think of it like this: challenge is the steep slope, whereas difficulty is the brick wall.

When the subject of difficulty in games comes up, Dark Souls is often the first game to be mentioned, so let me do the same. Dark Souls and its awkwardly-named predecessor Demon's Souls are not challenging games, they're plain old difficult. I'll explain why after I do a side-by-side comparison with Super Meat Boy in terms of difficulty vs. challenge.

Super Meat Boy is a game that will send many into a rage, but if you do get eviscerated by a flying saw or swallowed by a salt pit, it's not the games fault, it's yours. The controls are taut and the presentation is clear enough for you to distinguish a hazard from a platform. The designers know that you will die a lot in the levels of Super Meat Boy, so the levels are short and plenty and the respawn time is almost non-existent. It's trial and error, but the error isn't heavily punished since the game knows that three out of four walls are deadly. The punishments for your error are a) losing your progress and being sent back to start and b) being frustrated with yourself for not being able to surmount a simple obstacle. You know where the hazards are and where not to fall, and there are no cheap, unexpected, one-shot insta-deaths, so when you die and have to restart, it's never the games fault. Super Meat Boy blissfully manages to be challenging without being frustrating.

Dark Souls is full of stupid, cheap and unexpected deaths, with insta-killing barrels rolling down staircases with little to no warning. It's organic, sure, but in a way that you can't distinguish a hazard from an objective. When the bosses do come (namely the second one) with no time or warning for you to prepare, they surround themselves with archers and always always one-hit-kill you. And when you do die from unexpected, unfair deaths, you're set back right to the start. That wouldn't be a problem in Super Meat Boy where the levels are short enough for you to recover and learn from, but in Dark Souls, levels are extremely lengthy and arduous, so being set back right to the start with all enemies reset and all progress lost could not be more frustrating. It's not intended for you to overcome a challenge, it's just being plain old mean. A lot of people will disagree with me on this, but Dark Souls is not a challenge, nor is it testing your skill, it's testing your ability to put up with being bullied. To quote Yahtzee Croshaw, "A challenge is one thing, but trying to break down a cement wall with your forehead isn't a challenge, it's grounds for getting sectioned."

Other games can pull of being challenging without being frustrating, like many levels in the most recent Rayman games. The auto-saving is just the right amount of frequent and the controls are taut and a pleasure to behold, allowing you to recover and learn from previous errors. You might say that that's what Dark Souls does; you have to play the level multiple times in order to become familiar with it and learn all its tricks, to which I say, and for what? The skills you learn in previous levels will not help you in later levels because the levels drastically change and the tricks become more varied, more common and even trickier. Learning your way around a hazard or an enemy in Super Meat Boy will help you later on because perhaps that same hazard or enemy may appear in a later stage, like a boss fight. The boss fights in Super Meat Boy are the best kind of boss fights. They're the kind that test your ability and knowledge up to that point, and leave you with a sense of accomplishment. You could say that that's what Dark Souls also does, and I reckon it does, but the only meaningful progress you would make in a level of Dark Souls is a higher tolerance for nastiness, and the boss fights test your tolerance, and surmounting a boss will give you a greater sense of accomplishment. But that's not all there is to a boss fight, or a game as a whole for that matter.

The point of Super Meat Boy is to have fun in facing a challenge, and it pulls it off with flying colours. I'm sure Dark Souls is engaging to the masochistic audience of gamers, but that's not me. I'm glad that games like Dark Souls exist for those that want a high barrier to entry, but that's not fun or engaging, it's just to show off to the internet that you can. If you like being punished by games with a high barrier to entry, that's fine, but understanding the difference between challenging and difficult is important to understanding what games you prefer to play as a consumer and what audience of gamer you're making your game for as a designer.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

'Free To Play' and The Future of Competitive Gaming

Free To Play is a documentary released on the Steam store about a three, 20-something, pop tart-consuming, Dota 2 champions who are good enough at their game that they get to compete in an International tournament (innovatively and originally titled 'The International'). But this ain't any old tournament; where most competitive gaming tournaments had a small prize pool of some few thousand dollars (which is still a lot for playing a game), the prize pool for The International was $1,000,000. That's right, a million big ones for playing a game. Do you know how ridiculous that sounds to any non-gamer? Do you understand how ridiculous E-Sports seemed to me at first? Even gamers within their respective communities look down upon E-Sports as trivial and rather silly, much like how parents look down upon gaming as a whole as trivial and silly. E-Sports, however, isn't silly, it's just one of the ways in which gaming can break in to the mainstream entertainment industry.

See, gaming is still in its baby steps; we haven't had a Picasso or a Stanley Kubrick, and there are many pundits out there that have no shame in titling our medium as 'worse than heroin'. This is expected in the early days of a medium, like when the movie industry was feared in the 60s and 70s because of how film was so life-like in its violence that it could coerce a younger generation of children and teenagers into becoming violent, sociopathic serial rapists. Turns out that didn't happen, and 50 years on films are accepted as mainstream entertainment, where taking your kids to see the new Disney film is now a family day out. Will this happen for gaming? Will there be televised coverages of video game awards? Will game developers and voice actors be held in equally high-esteem to film directors and film actors? Or more relevant to the topic, will turning on a game of League of Legends be as common as turning on the Rugby match? 

If we get right down to it, sports aren't really about the sport. Running isn't about getting from A to B in the fastest time possible, because if it was, running would incorporate rocket-powered motorbikes instead. Running is about who can put one leg in front of the other the fastest. Football is about seeing who can kick a circular ball into a square net the best. Basketball is about seeing who can throw a spherical ball into a round hoop the best. Dota 2 is about clicking on an enemy until the enemy falls down. See how I've reduced these sports into pointless objectives? Does it make you want to stop watching or playing football or basketball? No, because sports aren't really about the sport, they're about the athletes, and their strive for success overcoming all odds, facing hardship, defeat or victory. Whether you're the spectator or the athlete, the sport requires a level of commitment, dedication, skill and practice to be the best at. In which regard, how is Dota 2 or League of Legends any different to football or basketball or running?

In Free To Play, we learn about three main E-sports champions; Benedict 'hyhy' Lim, Clinton 'Fear' Loomis, and Danil 'Dendi' Ishutin. Benedict is considered to be the best Dota 2 player in his country, Singapore. In pursuing his talents as a champion, he rejects school work and academia to the point where he misses his exam week in favour of the International. Under constant, intense pressure from his parents, the game is his escape from the pressures and the expectations of the outside world. Clinton Loomis takes his Dota teams so seriously that he stays up way into the early hours of the morning (and later) just to play with his European team, to the point where his mother kicked him out of the house due to the disturbance he caused. Danil Ishutin is a troubled guy, but channels his unhappiness through playing Dota. He lets out his anger, frustration and often chaos in-game, which is probably what makes him such an iconic player. All three of these gamers have one important thing in common: they pile hours upon hours on Dota to become the best at it because they don't have much else. Life doesn't offer them much in the way of opportunities, and Dota is a small way for them to become the best at something. They all have the chance to be the best in the world at something, and just because they're good at manipulating pixels on a screen doesn't invalidate their skill.

So what of the future? It's all good and well to be appreciated within your select community,  but how will competitive gaming reach mainstream audiences? Firstly, it needs to be easy to understand. A problem that many people had with Free To Play is that it was hard to comprehend key, important moments of the story without understanding the specifics of the game. We need to fix this, for how can professional gaming hope to transcend the gaming community if only a minor percentile understand it? Secondly, there are new games all the time, with updates to the meta rolling in constantly that it can drastically change the game, and that games become dated quickly these days. Chess is hundreds of years old, but it isn't 'dated', whereas Modern Warfare is some seven years old, any many a gamer are quick to call it an 'old game'. Lastly, there needs to be a way for people to easily access these competitive games. The feeling that it is within your power to become the best at the game with enough commitment and sacrifice is enough to keep you and many thousand a gamer playing, and that possibility needs to be easily accessible to everyone. Gaming needs an equivalent of picking up a football and kicking it. 

Free To Play is just the start of the mainstream acceptance of E-Sports, and it's a step in the right direction. It's free for you to watch on Steam and Youtube, and I highly recommend you do; it's not just a strong message about E-Sports, it's actually a really good 3-way character study and a damn good underdog sports documentary. While many will be ready to laugh Free To Play out of the room, it's bravely and seriously tackling a largely unrecognised facet of gaming culture. Non-gamers, prepare to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, because gaming is no longer a toy or a murder simulator, it's an expressive medium, a the worlds most profitable entertainment industry, and now it's a freakin' sport.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Flappy Bird's Discontinuation is a Bad Thing

Flappy Bird developer Dong Nyugen has announced on Twitter that he is taking down his game from the app store within the next 24 hours. For those of you who somehow don't know, Flappy Bird is a simple flight game where you tap the bird to levitate and avoid falling into pipes. That's it. It has attracted popularity due to its intense difficulty, and it has become a game that people love to hate. I won't get into the 'Casual iPhone gamers have been desensitised to the undemanding difficulty of Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja that when they face a game with actual challenge they start freaking out' argument, but instead, I will talk about how the removal of Flappy Bird is a bad thing, even if you or I didn't like the game (which I didn't).

Flappy Bird is an indie game. It was made on a small budget by one guy in Vietnam, so it's not exactly a Triple-A big-hitter in that regard. What I know for a fact is that there are so many more indie games deserved of popularity than Flappy Bird, and I'm pretty sure Dong Nyugen knows this too. See, Treyarch and Infinity Ward can deal with hate because there are hundreds of those guys working on a game, so singling out one person for the horribleness of COD: Ghosts is a challenging task. With Flappy Bird, all the hatred and the anger than spurted from the game was directed straight at one person. Think about that: immense popularity of a game, followed by widespread rage and screaming videos, 1-star reviews, and even death threats. Why did Flappy Bird get so popular? I have absolutely no idea; there are loads of games out there that are designed solely to excite the rage out of their player, so why has Flappy Bird launched to the top?

The discontinuation of Flappy Bird proves that the success of indie games depend on the mental well-being of their auteur. Indie games are mostly made by a small group of people or just one guy, whereas big-budget releases are made by hundreds of people. Those hundreds of people can pass the blame on to the next guy if someone asks why this part of the game is shoddy or broken, whereas if an Indie Game is bad, that goes straight to one person, and they can't dodge it how ever hard they try. It happened with Phil Fish; he made a Futurama reference and everyone thought he was being serious. He said that most modern Japanese games suck (which they do, I mean take a look at Skyward Sword and the recent Final Fantasy games), and the video game press were accusing him a racist and a douchebag. On top of that, people didn't like his game, so their criticism was directed at him directly in a volatile manner, along with all the other accusations of racism and douchebaggery thrown his way. You know what he did? He quit. He quit the games industry. He cancelled Fez II and isn't going to make another game.

What were the games journalists and raging internet keyboard warriors expecting Phil Fish to do when they were calling him a racist and a douchebag? Similarly, what are the screaming YouTubers and raging internet keyboard warriors expecting when they were barraging Flappy Bird with unadulterated hate? I have an answer: views. PewDiePie will get more views on his recent incessant screaming videos by incessantly screaming about the mild challenge of Flappy Bird. News websites will get more hits if they document the false racism of Phil Fish. What happens when another indie game developer decides to have a personality or to make an intentionally hard game? Will they be forced to quit too? Fortunately, Dong Nyugen will still be making games, but he will forever be branded 'The Flappy Bird guy' whenever he appears on an interview or makes a new game.

So yeah. If he actually is taking Flappy Bird down, this is a sad day for indie game developers.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Papers, Please: An Extensive Appraisal

With all these large development teams big-budgets spent on motion-capture, film-like cutscenes, top-notch voice actors and an elaborate script, a 2D pixel-art game about paperwork tells a better story than any other game this year. It has no voice acting, apart from the 4 separate sound clips of gurble used to indicate speech, it has no cinematic, 20 minute-long cutscenes that make you feel as if you're watching a movie instead of playing a game, the faces that you see past the desk and on the passports were seemingly made on MS Paint, and it was made by one guy. Let that sink it for a moment. One guy, with inexpensive tools and access to Steam Greenlight, told a deeper, more personal, intricate and well-structured story than any video game that came out in 2013. Maybe I'm giving it too much credit, because I like the indie game revolution and it's good to see such a humble game get huge amounts of credit (GOTY awards from Wired, The New Yorker, Ars Technica), but after playing the game a few times, I feel as if I can pin down what I felt was important and resonant about Papers, Please.
From what I've read from different players, the interpretation of Papers, Please different from player to player. Some say it's about a totalitarian government, some say it's about the struggles and emotional toll of a soul-crushingly depressing desk-job, and others think it's just a game about checking paperwork. All of those things are true, but for me, Papers, Please was about mainly power, moral choice and all of its consequences. Moral choice mechanics are handled so poorly in most games, with a binary 'Good' or 'Evil' option. It's what brought down Infamous for me. With these mechanics, it's not about doing what makes sense, or doing what you want, it's about doing whatever will get you the most points so you can get your next upgrade. It's an incredibly stupid mechanic which doesn't belong in any game, indie or big-budget. With Papers, Please, it's not about getting your upgrades, it's about doing the right thing. Your family is on the line here. If you follow the rules with extreme rigour and haste, you will feed your family, but along the way you run into a law-abiding citizen with a minor discrepancy, or a criminal with the correct paperwork, and you must decide between breaking the rules and doing the right thing, or abiding by the rules despite the moral injustice, but you and your family are fed, sheltered and well. What matters most to you?

A main point of criticism for the game was the the central gameplay mechanic was boring. You check paperwork, you either decline or approve their paperwork. It seems boring, but that's not really what is at the centre of the game. The gameplay is intentionally soul-crushingly tedious, to emphasise the bleak and hopeless atmosphere of the game, but it becomes bleaker and less hopeful when your day is interrupted by a terrorist attack, or when someone curses at you for not letting them through, or when that annoying printing sound points out that you've forgotten to check all the discrepancies that no normal human being would really look for or care about; it all takes a toll on you. At the end of the day, you get your paycheck, and here lies even more emotional tolls. All of your money goes to feed your family and maintain their well-being. We can all relate to a family here. We're not using this money for a greater cause, like craft anti-alien weapons or save the world, we're simply working to feed our family. It's certainly relatable if nothing else, and it's what engrosses us; you instantly care about providing and maintaining a family system. 

The thing is, your wife and son and mother in law and uncle don't have a name, or a face, or a personality of any kind. It simply says their title, and their state of well-being. Could this be an allusion to the middle-class underachievers in a dead-end job working like a clockwork orange to provide for a family that they don't talk to with no hope or variety in their life? Could the inspector be Lester Burnham or a similar character?  Could be, but when taking on the role of a border-patrol inspector, you have the choice to overthrow the totalitarian government you are victim to by way of a rebel group requiring your help to let the right people in (with the wrong paperwork) and the bad people out (with the right paperwork), potentially putting some excitement and fulfilment in your life. Or not. You can carry on with your routine like the bloody coward you are. 

It's been 6 months since its release, and over a month since it was awarded numerous Game of the Year awards, but it still remains distinct in my memory. A game about paperwork manages to stick with me longer than The Last of Us and certainly Beyond: Two Souls, and in traditional game terms, it shouldn't be traditionally fun or engaging, let alone artistically resonant and a hallmark of game design. I'm going to go out on a limb here, and say that Papers, Please gets to me more than Telltale's Walking Dead. 'How so?', you may ask, to which I answer, 'Play the god-damn game. It's beautifully bleak, soul-crushing, depressing and claustrophobic, but suprising, morally-questioning, often-hilarious and thought-provoking'. Eat that, Triple-A games industry. 

Sunday, 12 January 2014

5 Reasons Why The Elder Scrolls Online Won't Work

So I got in to The Elder Scrolls Online Beta. Due to a strict non-disclosure agreement, I can't talk about the actual game, but what I can talk about is everything surrounding it. Sharing gameplay footage and early reviews are strictly prohibited, but I can still talk about the basic premise of The Elder Scrolls Online, and why it won't bloody work.

1. How is this any different from Guild Wars 2?

For me, Guild Wars 2 was The Elder Scrolls Online. It had a wide variety of classes and option, a huge immersive world, organic exploration and a whole new language you have to learn (*sigh*), which is moreorless the standard for every Fantasy RPG nowadays. It captured the openness and the immersion found in The Elder Scrolls, but made everything a little more polished, like with the map system and inventory which, granted, took a leaf out of Morrowind's book.

So what does TESO have more to offer? How will it improve on Guild Wars 2's fantastic world? How will it improve on the bog-standard combat, and the epic World vs. World? I mean, will it even do that?

2. Why does The Elder Scrolls need to go online?

In Skyrim and Morrowind, I found peace in being alone. Lost. Stranded in the wild. It provoked discovery and exploration, and salvation was found in discovering civilised society. Taking on countless enemies and finding hidden dungeons by myself felt more rewarding than being accompanied by an annoying AI partner. I purposefully got rid of Lydia in Skyrim because it was better for me to travel alone, even though she was a great help. Sometimes, I get away from everything; that's what The Elder Scrolls is all about for me. I like to feel completely isolated in East Jesus Nowhere with only the beautiful sights of nature to accompany me.
So why do I need 200 other versions of me running around with their name floating above their head? How will that improve my gaming experience? Will it be better for me to disconnect every 15 minutes due to a horrible internet connection? Will that improve The Elder Scrolls at all? How will this add to the series in any way?

3. Bugs. Everywhere.

Skyrim was a big game. The Elder Scrolls online is bigger. Skyrim was single-player. TESO is not just multiplayer, but a Massively-Multiplayer Online game. Skyrim was filled to the brim with bugs, so what of The Elder Scrolls Online? From what I've played of the Beta, I can't even create a character without it all crashing, if I can log in at all. It has crashed and disconnected and error-messaged more times than I can care to count. It's not even in early Beta; it went in to Beta testing January 2013. One whole year ago. The game comes out in three months. When I finally got to play it, well, I can't talk about that, but I can talk about how it took longer to get up and running than any other game I've played on PC. I've never had to scroll through a forum for this long in my entire life looking for solutions to problems that shouldn't even be there this late in testing. It's coming out in three months. Three months. You do not want to know how long it took for me to get the game up and running.

4. Why is there a subscription fee?

Do you know who wants to pay for subscription fees? No one, that's who. Do you know who likes convenience and ease with their entertainment? Everyone, that's who. I thought it was a no-brainer for the folks at Bethesda, but obviously not. It's an old business model. In today's market, where you can get an app for $.99 and have hours upon hours of fun, it seems obscene for a game to charge $15 a month for their content. But that's what they're doing.

Hey, do you know what did well? Guild Wars 2. Not only was it good (and it was actually pretty good), it gave you heaps and mounds of seemingly-limitless content, but all for the £35 that it cost. That's it. I pay what I need to get the game, and I can access all of it without spending another penny. Do you know what didn't do well? Every MMO that came out after WoW that made you pay a subscription fee. Really, name a good MMO that came out ofter WoW that is still around today. Do you know why that's a hard? Because there is none. All the good and memorable MMO's that came out after WoW were subscription-free, see Knights of the Old Republic, and its sequel. You could say EVE online, but, really? EVE online? No, not EVE online, because it was bore-tastic. So no, either TESO scraps it's subscription fee and becomes more accessible to, lets say, everyone, or it joins the likes of Tabula Rasa and The Old Republic, and we all know how they went down.

5. Who even asked for this?

Seriously. Who wanted this? Was there a demand for a single-player fantasy RPG turned into an MMO? No, because whomever wanted a fantasy MMORPG since Skyrim has played Guild Wars 2.

If the final version of TESO is anything like the Beta, and on top of that they ask for a subscription fee, and on top of that there will be more people running around ruining an immerisve experience, then TESO will crash and burn like every other MMO that wanted to be WoW that isn't WoW, with the exceptions of MMO's that don't have the gall to ask for your money every month. But I don't know, maybe Bethesda will prove me wrong and I sure hope they do, because I really want this to be good.