Something on my Desk… I will catch up, I swear!

As a game developer who knows a ton of game developers I tend to hear about games before they are announced and I hear things about games that are not released. It is great fun to know all these things, even if I can’t tell anyone else about it. Just for the record, you won’t be hearing anything secret here.

So this weekend I was at Gamestop in our local mall and I noticed they have “Coming Soon” boxes for Bioshock 2. Bioshock 2 isn’t going to hit shelves until October 30th, but they already have pre-orders up.

For me, Bioshock 2 hitting shelves is totally different than it is for most people. My husband works as an engineer on the development team. Which means more often than not he stays late at work and often works on weekends. Bioshock is a big game and as such requires people with a great deal of commitment and diligence. Bioshock 2 hitting the shelves means his big dream game is done. He will likely get to spend more time at home in the evenings, but mostly I will be thrilled he worked on and shipped one of his favorite games. It is every game developer’s life long dream. To work on a game you love and enjoy, doing the tasks you love and enjoy, and then going into stores and seeing the space on the shelf where your game should be, but isn’t because it is sold out. 🙂

So with that in mind, the item on my desk this week is the Limited Edition Big Daddy, and the slightly less Limited Edition Little Sister statues. They are great figures. My big daddy protects my little sister. 🙂

Oh just for good measure some links!
Cult of Rapture
There’s Something in the Sea
Official Game Site

Valkyria Chronicles!

*raises her fist in triumph*

Last night I buckled down and completed Valkyria Chronicles. I spent about an hour grinding through the same skirmish to get my characters to level 19 to complete the last two missions.

Now that I have fully completed this game, I would like to look at it with a Game Design eye.

To begin I would like to make one thing very clear. I love this game. It plays wonderfully, is quite fun, and really embraces it’s genre. All of the problems I have with the game are by no means insurmountable and should not be used for reasons not to play the game. In fact, if you have a PS3, I would say this game is in fact the ONE game you should own.

1. Do What I Say Not What I Do:
One early thing I learned in Game Design is to reinforce behavior you WANT the player to do. If you want them to take time to break open every single crate and barrel, you make the break animation and effect look awesome, you make crates and barrels drop items, and you make it very easy to break them.
Many games use this to great effect. Positive reinforcement is the basis for most child rearing techniques and most Religions as well. Reward the player for doing the things you tell them to do and punish them for not doing the things you want them to do.
VC pretty much ignores this idea in favor of blatantly leading the player astray. There are multiple missions where if you listen to the game’s advice you will not only do very poorly at the map, but if you listen too well, you will fail the map.
To give a specific example (Warning Minor Mission Spoilers Ahead) in Chapter 7 you must lead your squad against a huge tank. As always you are promoted to position your units and deploy them. There are 8 slots to place characters, two within a base and behind walls. Up until this point in the game every position within a base and behind a wall is quite safe and is where you place support characters like engineers or snipers. Also despite being up against a tank, logical tells you to have a wide range of units. (I usually shoot for 2 scouts, 2 troopers, one lancer, one sniper, and one engineer then fill in the other slots with snipers and lancers as needed.) Once you begin the map however you discover two things in the first turn. You don’t have enough CP to move the two guys you just placed in the base and still take out the cannons on the tank that will chew your three guys placed on the side of it and the guys that are rushing down the hill. And if you leave those two guys in the base, they will die. So by filling every slot on the field with logical choices you have screwed yourself. So you begin again. This time with better placement and more Lancers. (You can only take out the tank guns with Lancers, thus you need much more than normal.) So you go on your merry way for the first few turns and the game gives you some great advice : Shoot these large brick walls to knock them down and it will slow the Tank’s progress. Unfortunately if you do this when they tell you to, as one would assume that is why they are telling you, you will block the Edelweiss in and get your tank killed. Oh did I mention getting the tank killed is ALWAYS an instant loss condition?

After trying this map approx 4 times on my own (and wasting a whole afternoon) I finally looked up a walkthrough that explained how to win this mission. Turns out you ignore the game for the most part. Yeah you still shoot the walls, but several turns after you are told to do so, and you call in reserves as opposed to placing a full contingent to begin with.

2. Wait no, it’s do what I do, not what I say…
To confuse the goals of the game further, and compound the distrust you have of the game already, you are trained to play the game a certain way. They teach you very early: stick together, move carefully, always end a movement crouched or hidden, take your time, bring everyone home alive. They teach strategy and tactics quite well and all of the levels are built with tactics in mind. You get bonuses for sneaking up behind enemies, bonuses for killing all the enemies, and even some potentials that trigger when doing these things. However, as it turns out the true goal of every map is the Rank given at the end. Yes, you get small bonuses to xp and ducats for killing enemies, but nothing compared to the xp and ducats you get for completing a mission with an A Rank. So what determines your Rank? The number of turns it takes you to complete the mission.
For this example, there is a mission called Windmill Plaza. It later becomes a Skirmish as well (for the first play through you cannot replay maps, just skirmishes). If you play this map the way you are intended to play it, scouting ahead, sniping their snipers, taking out the tank, picking up mines, capturing the mid-field base, etc, you will end with a D rank. Even with perfect movement, no one dying, potentials going off like mad, you will get a D rank after taking 8 turns. You are given 20 turns for each mission, but using less than half and you still receive a poor rank. Now after reading the walkthrough I discovered you could complete this map on the first turn. How can such a feat be pulled off? Simple, run a mortar carrying lancer up, to blow up the two guys right in front of your base, then run your scout around, kill the last scout in your way, and stop right next to the tank. Now give your scout a command that makes her resistant to cross fire and run her straight up the side to the enemy base. Take out the sniper and AT Gun there and bam capture the base, usually with two CP to spare. Congratulations, you just did something that if you tried in a real war would get you slaughtered. Oh and ignored tactics and safety (you still have a pretty good chance of screwing up this crazy plan that would lead to your whole team getting wiped out.)
Making something a primary goal of the training and then reinforcing it in the text, communication, mission briefs means it should always ever be the primary goal. Not figuring out how to game the map to reach the goal quickest to get a higher rank. Reward the player for doing what you ask them to, not for doing what you tell them not to.

3. I’m bored. You Bored? I KNOW! Let’s make a gimmick fight that ignores the kind of game we made.
Strategy and tactics is all about fighting smart and playing well. Balancing the need to be speedy with the need to be safe. Balancing movement and ammo. Strategy is not about figuring out the gimmick that makes this map so easy my cat could lay on the controller and pull it off. Strategy is not a random number generator that determined that three of these towers will be randomly selected to require destruction but if you are unlucky enough to get all three towers that are very difficult to take out it is now mathematically impossible to succeed at the mission. The advice of the guides? Save before the towers get selected and reload until you get a good set. !!! How is that strategy?!?
In addition to this, at what point did it become a practice to always have the last battle in a game completely break with the gameplay previously set up until that point? It is a turn based strategy game with third person action elements. Wouldn’t it be much cooler to have the last battle be that, a battle! Wide scale, with extra members of your squad on the field, and extra CP, and those ragnite tanks that explode so well. Instead we get a gimmicky boss battle that is over in 3 turns and completely ignores the gameplay that makes the game so good up to this point. They could have had a huge epic battle that called out all the stops. A huge battlefield where my Sniper’s 1800 range rifles would actually be useful. Maybe even allow you to field your entire squad. That would be epic!

4. Once More WITH FEELING!
I have to admit. I love playing games over and over again. I have played Legend of Dragoon 6 times. Ocarina of Time 8 or 9. I do this with books and movies too. I have re-read Wheel of Time at least 6 times, Harry Potter about 8 times… God himself only knows how many time I have seen Star Wars or Lion King. So when I see a game that has New Game + as part of it’s bullet points, I always get excited. VC was no exception. I stayed up to 12:30am to find out what was kept when you started a new game +. Turns out nearly everything. I was quite surprised. It meant that all the xp and ducats I earned from this point on were practically worthless. I already had all the upgrades and my guys were all level 19 or 20. (20 being the max level). Well at least I got stats and could replay the levels now as much as I wanted, which is awesome. The only thin was, when I went to form up my squad again I discovered… All those characters that get added over time are re-randomized. Oh you get the few you had to jump through hoops to unlock, but the ones like Vyse and Aika are back in the void and you have to keep playing through the missions hoping they get picked by the randomizer to be added back into the squad roster… Which means I am now forced to play with characters that say things in the worst sort of valley girl voice “Oh! Like, there’s an Enemy!” I feel stupider for having listened to her.
If you are going to retain things, do not retain things that make your reward system worthless (or at least add another tier of things to purchase) and retain things that the player is obviously a fan of if it doesn’t break the first rule. Oh you played with these two characters EVERY SINGLE MISSION? Maybe we should make sure you still have those.

Finale:
I loved VC. I think it is far and away on of the best strategy titles I have played. I wish more people I knew owned PS3s and could play it. It has a few minor flaws, but for the most part is a wonderful game. Some may complain at the number of cutscenes, but I felt they were engaging and interesting and definitely filled out the character of the world much better than most. Some may complain that the story was too contrived, but to be honest, what story isn’t these days? At least this one throws a few bumps in the road and you really feel for the characters.

This game definitely makes it onto my Top Ten Games of All Time list. 🙂

Midsummer Fire Festival

One of my grand vices is World of Warcraft. I started playing about 9 months after launch and with the exception of a few months here and there, I have played ever since.

Originally I played with a few friends in real life on Hellscream, Alliance side. After a brief foray onto a PVP server I returned to Hellscream, took advantage of a free transfer and popped over to Madoran. My Hunter reached level 70 and I nearly quit the game. However right about this time I got a new job and there my boss played WoW as well. Only he played on Uther, Horde, with a large and active guild. So I rerolled on Uther.

The longer I played on Uther the more I liked it. There were plenty of interesting and active people in the Guild and it was quite a different game than I was used to playing, especially when I got to 70 and started raiding Karazhan. I decided to make Uther my home and used the Recruit a Friend promotion to level a ton of alts up to 60.

I now have 14 characters across two accounts on Uther. Until recently I raided 3-4 days a week and spent any excess time running Heroics and leveling alts. The we crashed into the Wall of Ulduar. As a Guild we did quite well up to this point, we even did well back in Burning Crusade, taking down Kael and everyone but Vashj, Archimonde, and Illidan. However Ulduar was a different story and the formerly wonderful Guild became a pit of despite and malice. After a particularly poor run I got fed up with the way I was being treated, esp since I had not wanted to raid that night and only came because they were so short on heals, and logged off. When I logged on the next day I had been kicked from the Guild.

So I quit WoW, knowing full well I would be back eventually. I spent a few weeks playing other games and enjoying myself quite a bit. When I restarted to do the Midsummer Fire Festival, I expected to fall right back in. Only it turns out, the game just isn’t the same anymore. Oh it is fun, especially when you have help, going around stealing fires, infiltrating capitals and whatnot, but for the most part the game is the same old boring game.

The design philosophy of Blizzard has also changed. Nerfs are prevalent. The attempt to make everything viable in PVP and PVE has weakened both and made certain classes and specs completely unbalanced. The desire to make things “special” has lead to 1% of the population getting all the best things while those who do not make the game their life or serious are left with the crappy looking stuff and trash that no one really wants. Not to mention exceptionally buggy patches, inconsistent changes and stances, and just poor planning all the way around.

Is this the beginning of the end? Will WoW pass into oblivion? I suppose they have to make room for their next MMO

Something on my Desk

Okay, I forgot.

I forgot that I had planned to do this feature every Friday, but more importantly, I forgot that it was Friday.

I am getting very close to the end of Valkyria Chronicles and I am re-starting playing Legend of Dragoon, a Playstation 1 JRPG title. Toss in some frustration over Sony’s PSN Account/PS3/PSP and what can be downloaded to a PSP and I forgot about life that wasn’t right in front of me.

I talked about Magic the Gathering earlier this week so I decided to pick a Magic the Gathering card I have propped up against my monitor. It is the Lorwyn version of Chandra, a Planeswalker. I love the art, the fiery redheaded woman, and the power of the card. In addition, she was the first Planeswalker I ever got. I am a fiery redhead and thus love seeing them in popular culture.

In addition, it should be noted that Magic 2010, the new core set, is coming out July 17th, and will include new versions of all the previous planeswalkers. I am very excited as I need all the other Lorwyn planeswlakers.

Drafting

Magic the Gathering is a collectible card game that is based on the premise of two wizards dueling using their various spells and spell books. You have your library (deck) of spells (60 cards) that include mana (land), creatures, instants, sorcery, auras, enchantments, and so on.

I am fortunate enough to work at a company where we have regular drafts. Drafting MtG is an odd process. You get three booster packs and then sit around a table with 7 other people. You open your booster pack and choose a single card from it, then pass it to the left. You receive packs from your right and take a single card and pass it on. The second pack is exactly the same only passed to the right, then the third is passed back to the left. At the end of the draft you have 45 cards and must create a 40 card deck including lands, which you can add as many as you wish from a communal land box.

You then play your deck against everyone else’s deck. At the end of the draft the rare cards are gathered up and drafted once again, only this time following the order in which people won the draft.

I am abysmal at drafting. I play with several people who are excellent at drafting. Needless to say, I don’t ever win, but enjoy myself nevertheless.

For those of you who are magic nerds I drafted a Bant Esper deck from Alara/Conflux/Reborn. 🙂

Webcomics

I read a large number of webcomics. By large I mean, I have an entire separate folder filled with the links to various comics. I discovered webcomics in 2005 and have been hooked on them ever since.

Today I really want to point at one and say “READ THIS”. Seriously, if you only read one web comic, this one is it. Sheldon is about a billionaire kid, his grandfather, a talking duck, and the awesomest lizard ever. With topics ranging from the super nerd, to the lesser nerd, to the nostalgia, to coffee, to pugs… it has something for everyone and everything is funny.

If you watch How I Met Your Mother, you have seen Sheldon. Often you will see them reading Sheldon anthologies. The creator of Sheldon’s wife is a writer for HIMYM. So between the two of them, they have the hilariously funny and enjoyable completely covered.

Go read some Sheldon, so you know what I mean when I say *Squee*!

Legends of Zork

I mentioned it in my first post, but today I would like to go into more detail about Legends of Zork. LoZ is a browser based casual massively multiply game. It is similar to Kingdom of Loathing.

In LoZ you step into the role of an employee recently laid off and now turned to adventuring to make money. Were you a glove salesmen? Goggles? Swords? Which ever you choose changes the items you begin with and gives you some small bonus to exploring.

The game is steeped in the lore and flavor of the many Zork games. From the locations (the White House, Dark Forest, Port Foozle, GUE Tech…) to the weapons (Frostham Bearded Axe, Pen Knife, Elvish Sword…) you find connections to all the old games. Launched on April Fools day, this game tries very hard to take everything with the humor and insanity of Zork. While it is not a traditional Zork game, with no winding passages and lanterns to keep track of, it is a delightfully enjoyable game that brings the quirky humor back into browser based games.

The game is not perfect. It has UI issues, severely broken pvp, and some balance issues that would capsize a aircraft carrier. But in the end, the developers seem to be listening to the community for the large part and trying to make their game better.

If you want to read further thoughts and information on LoZ head to the official LoZ forums or the Worn Jorunal, my blog as the leader of one of the largest Clans in LoZ, The Old Guard.

Something on my desk…

So I have decided to do a weekly post, every Friday, about something on my desk. I have at least 4 months of fodder too. 🙂

Today we have….

The Plague! Yes that’s right, I have a stuff version of the Bubonic Plague sitting on my desk. I love throwing it at people and telling them I gave them Plague.

In High School, like many other children, I was subjected to a form of torture called research papers. Much to my teacher’s dismay I chose to write my paper on the Bubonic Plague and the decimation of the European population. I had recently read a book call The Plague Tales by Ann Benson. Needless to say, I wrote a rather superb paper on this gruesome topic.

Even now, years later, I am fascinated with this concept of viruses that wipe out entire populations. These natural organisms that are in fact designed to prey on humans. One of my favorite books of all time, Caverns of Socrates, begins with the world population having been almost eradicated due to an airborne version of the Ebola virus. These cataclysmic events lead to a complete breakdown of society and everything “safe”. What would you do in such an event?

I am not sure why I have a fondness for the Black Plague, other than the paper and a few books I have read, but the History Major side of me love the stories of the chaos surrounding the spread of the disease.

Skies of Arcadia

Recently I have become heavily enamored of a game called Valkyria Chronicles on the PS3. What does VC have to do with Skies of Arcadia?

The fact that the three main characters in Skies appear in your squad roster in Valkyria Chronicles. Now I am a huge fan of crossovers in games. My favorite Soul Caliber game included the appearance of Link, from Ocarina of Time. So of course I chose to add Vyse and Aika to my roster and use them frequently.

There is a psychological theory that things you are familiar with create a positive feeling within you. Then if you encounter them in another location, you connect the positive feeling. The more this happens the more you like it. It is a sense of resonance that you equate with the thing you recognize. This is why after a long time you become used to something and it bothers you less. Why things from the past seem more wonderful.

So of course, the more I used these characters in VC, the more I wanted to see the rest of their story. So I decided to play Skies of Arcadia, a game I had always wanted to play, just never got around to. A search of my game library, a considerable collection to be honest, however showed that I did not own the game. I remember having it at some point. I do not have it now though.

At the end of the day, I was forced to turn to eBay to find it. This event once more shows why I think eBay is far and away the best thing ever created on the Internet. 🙂

What I am playing this weekend: Valkyria Chronicles

A Beginning

Recently through a series of strange events I became the leader of the largest Clan in Legends of Zork. Part of being the leader of this Clan, The Old Guard, included dealing with online communication between 400+ users, all across the world. This lead to the creation of a forums and blog.

Blogs have always fascinated me. An entire ocean of tiny soapboxes where people can stand up and say anything to the world at large. An entire world of voices straining to be heard amongst the din created by so many of these voices. I always wanted to write a blog, but assumed the effort was worthless. After all, who wants to hear what I have to say?

With the LoZ blog suddenly I had people listening to things I had to say, for no other reason than I had the ability to say them. So why not here? My website was an antique left over from my attempts to find a job in the video game industry. Might as well put it to some use. So I hearby dub my soapbox The Blank Pages and begin my foray into this odd form of public journalism.