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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in Gaming and Thinking's LiveJournal:

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Wednesday, June 4th, 2008
12:34 pm
Engaging the Fictional World
I recently received an email from one of the few remaining fans of One Must Fall 2097, one of my favorite games of all time and a major part of my teenage life. It's a sci-fi fighting game where your character (who has various stats) is strapped into a giant robot who has fireballs, uppercuts, etc. and you duke it out in a futuristic sport.

The game was ahead of its time: it not only included a bog-standard Story Mode where pre-defined characters delivered one-liners to each other and the ending resolved their conflicts, but a Tournament Mode where you create a character and follow them up the tournament ladder, buying different robots and training your skills and enduring one-liners from the bad guys. This way of grafting RPG / sports elements onto a fighting game (usually known for their extreme shallowness), plus good market positioning as a PC title, inspired a hardcore fan following that lasted for about 10 years.

So this guy, unknown to me (as they usually are), has taken every single one-line taunt in the game and written his own cocky one-line response. It's like he's created his own story mode character and written the 'missing' half of the dialogue for it. This isn't fan fiction in the traditional sense of appropriating the story for your own ends, it's writing yourself into the existing storyline through a different medium. (And, of course, fanfic is 90% female and this guy's taunts are heavy on the testosterone.)

I'm sure he's not alone - he can't be the first person to take a silent protagonist and write a script for them, for non-subversive purposes. Game studies too often focuses on the feminist end of fan creations, the kind that Breaks The Rules. Having a legitimate Mary Sue character is very interesting and it seems to me hitherto unexplored.
Monday, February 25th, 2008
4:35 pm
Rock Band: Biased?
Wikipedia's comprehensive list of Rock Band songs include the difficulty ratings that developer Harmonix has assigned to each song for each instrument, as well as its overall difficulty. When I read a review complaining that the vocals had been marginalized compared to the guitar, bass and drum parts, I decided to run the math and see whether the vocal difficulty mattered as much as, say, the guitar difficulty when considering the song as a whole. While there is some evidence, the more interesting conclusion was the accuracy of Harmonix's ratings for a song compared to their ratings for a particular instrument. Rhythm games commonly suffer from misleading difficulty ratings, so here's a rare glimpse into how often this phenomenon really occurs.

Each track is rated from 1 to 9 in difficulty, from "Warmup" (1) to "Impossible" (9). After running the numbers, a surprisingly reassuring picture emerged: songs were underrated about as often as they were overrated, and only 35% of songs were over- or underrated by a full point or more. Among the instruments, the overall rating corresponded very closely to the ratings for guitar and drums, with bass rated 0.38 easier and vocals 0.53 harder per song.

The outliers, more likely to stick in people's minds, were more telling. Vocals were the most likely to wildly disagree with the overall rating - for example, "Mississippi Queen" is rated a 1 overall but an 8 for vocals, a nasty surprise for karaoke fiends. The two largest outliers, "Sprode" and "Shake," were distributed as a magazine-only promo, so their clearly wrong ratings are unlikely to be seen by casual players. Some examples of bad ratings are legitimate - the Aerosmith cover "Train Kept A-Rollin" is rated a 5 overall but scores at least 7 in every individual instrument - but far more common are group ratings that differ from the average of their instruments in an attempt to hew more closely to the drum track.

In defense of Harmonix, this bias towards the drums and against the vocals reflects a deeper understanding of the game mechanics than the numbers suggest. The drum track, dense and repetitive, makes it easy for a difficult pattern to "kill" a player within just a few seconds. Conversely, even the most difficult vocal tracks are judged by long phrases, so a struggling singer can give his band plenty of opportunities to "save" him. The drummer, more sensitive to changes in difficulty, therefore has his personal difficulty level reflected more closely in the overall number.

(Food for thought: The differing ability of instruments to "save" ailing bandmates also plays well into the likely demographics of Rock Band owners: Guitar Hero veterans are expected to save their super meter to rescue the comparatively passive drummer and singer.)

Top ten offendersCollapse )
Friday, January 18th, 2008
1:41 pm
On Tilt
After work began, I have been getting into poker a lot more for my main non-video-game game fix. A conversation with a poker pro, P, got us thinking about an infamous poker idea, tilt. It is a simple yet fascinatingly prevalent phenomenon, which I recognized to be common to all competitive games and not just poker and thus appropriate for this blog.

Tilt is a state of aggravation. It is loosely defined as a situation where you are playing suboptimally as a result of an unbalanced emotional state. The state is usually induced by a big loss, a bad play from the opponent that made a profit for him, and/or boredom. As a result, the player frequently starts to go too far with air (weak cards), pull off big bluffs in an attempt to "get his money back," and call down too much with mediocre hands - in poker, this is just bleeding away money. The word "tilt" also makes physical sense, because a player on tilt is likely to lose even more money and go on even more tilt as the result of suboptimal play his original tilt induced, a cycle of chaos that pushes itself until the player loses it and goes into "mad monkey tilt," which I do not need to define.

One universal truth about tilt is that all players experience it, even extremely skilled and successful (these two are not necessarily the same thing in the poker world) players, and that they tilt for different reasons. I think there are three levels of "tilt-inducers" in poker, depending on the player's ability (seeing that the my main form of poker is (shorthanded) No-Limit Hold'Em, I will use examples from that game for my argument - very convenient since it is the most recognizable game right now. Thus, every time I refer to "poker" I'll actually be referring to the above game).

The most basic inducer of tilt is falling in love with "big" preflop hands. In poker, pocket aces or kings are very strong hands before the flop (community cards) are dealt, but their strength can fall dramatically and be overtaken by even 2-3 offsuit, the weakest heads-up poker hand. A recognizable mistake that beginners will make is that they'll be oblivious to continued aggression from the opponent after the flop is shown to be extremely dangerous (such as, say, a 789J3 board, with three hearts), and they'll continue to bet and call big raises (the latter is more of a sin than the former) all three streets with AA. Then, when they lose, they get angry that their opponents "sucked out" on them, completely disregarding facts such as pot odds, preflop play (they frequently would have incorrectly slowplayed AA preflop, for example, letting speculative hands such as 78 come in for cheap), etc. Almost always, right after a player loses a big pot in this fashion, they will go on tilt and steadily lose the rest of their stack with much more speculative hands, still played incorrectly, to "right" some sort of injustice incurred upon them.

Among more seasoned poker players, players complaining about AA being "broken" and whatever are immediately classified as signs of a weak player, because everyone recognizes the above situation. Even these players go on tilt though - the funny thing is they probably no longer tilt when they lose with KK or AA. Rather, they tilt frequently when a weaker player makes an incorrect play and defeats them in a pot. An example is a player attempting to bluff out a weaker player on a, say, 79T3A board holding rags (say 45) by betting all three streets, but the weaker player catches a 3 on the turn with 34 and calls a huge river bet. Here, the player goes on tilt not because he had good hands - far from it - but because he expected value out of his river bluff since most reasonably skilled players would fold the weak pair of 3s to a river bet after seeing so much aggression. Thus, the cause of tilt here is that one of his (otherwise correct) plays failing rather than his hand failing.

Finally, among the much better players and pros, the above forms of tilt are rare. They are used to the fact that strong hands can become weak and should be folded. They are also used to the fact that bad players will make bad decisions that defeat your good play (a common fact by itself that I think I can be summarized as "yomi 1 beating yomi 3" when we use yomi-style analysis). But their tilt comes when they play for a prolonged time against weaker opposition (whether a single player or a whole table of weak players), and the weaker opponent comes out ahead. Here, they expect to win because they expect their edge in the game to realize itself over time after repeated trials. When this is not realized, tilt is caused by the failing of his superior game over the opponent's game, and even the great players will start making very suboptimal moves.

Tilt is not particular to poker. In particular, I will take Street Fighter as my counterpoint. A good analogy to the first-level tilt-inducer: when a weak player performs a special move (such as a fireball), they expect the move to come out. However, it is easy to whiff the fireball motion and get a punch motion out instead. This may put the player on "tilt": frustrated (and frequently blaming the joystick or the music or God), the player will often usually attempt a fireball again just to "prove" to himself and/or his opponent that he can do it, even if the situation is no longer correct for a fireball. This expectation can be exploited by a thinking player, who will see a punch at medium distance into air, a move that has no reason to be performed besides being a whiffed fireball - and jump in without fear of retaliation because the opponent will probably throw out another fireball instead of thinking about anti-air. Seth Killian mentions this in one of his SRK.com posts as an important piece of knowledge to many tournament players. The other analogies are obvious - we get in horrible moods when the combos we practiced at home just refuse to come out; we throw out a psychic DP against the "obvious" roundhouse, but the n00b doesn't think about throwing the roundhouse and simply throws us after our DP whiffs; most of all, we get extremely angry with ourselves when n00bs somehow defeat us round after round even though we have been using "superior play," not realizing that our angry play has become "n00b-y" play already.

So my thesis? Tilt is created when we put too much faith in X, where X is an edge that we think we have. The edge could be on the execution level, the tactical level, the strategic level, or even the emotional level (yes, I have gone on tilt believing that my edge in tilt-control is better than that of the opponent). Tilt happens when we overestimate one specific edge and it fails us. We then feel we were cheated: cheated by the hours we put in learning the game, cheated by the teachers who taught us, cheated by life in letting a newbie defeat us and thinking that he is superior to us for the rest of his life... these are frequently not true - and seriously, why do you care what the newbie thinks??? It is rather silly though when we look at it objectively. No good player "should" always beat a bad player - while some of us may believe a benevolent deity is looking down at us and making sure the "better" player always wins, just look at any sport upset story. The only thing fair is mathematics - in the long run, *if* you have an edge, it will catch up and average out giving you more wins than an unskilled player.

So what did I learn from playing poker and thinking about tilt? Simple. Recognize that no game has its entire outcome based on skill . If this were true, than any chess or go game involving X matches should never end in anything other than a X-0 win or an 0-X loss (or maybe X ties for you nitpicky types). This simply doesn't happen, even among the best players of the craft. So take a step back, relax, and just focus on improving your skills rather than tilting off whatever edge you may have had. In the case of poker, it is also good for your wallet.
Tuesday, December 25th, 2007
2:30 pm
Beyond Good & Evil and Pirates

One of my favorite new ways to describe certain pieces of media is to call them "The Pirates of the Carribean of XYZ." There is something magical about that movie - it is not groundbreaking in anyway, does not introduce any grandiose philosophical theme, but yet manages to entertain and not leave a greasy aftertaste of brain junk food.

In other words, I had a different fun experience watching it from watching a pure action film (say Bad Boys II ) or watching a "film" which was just Jessica Alba's boobs in disguise. Those were enjoyable for my natural masculine interest in violence and sex, but Pirates was enjoyable for the fun. Pirates didn't make me a wiser person, but since it tapped into the "fun" of an storytelling (even though, I reiterate, the story itself was nothing special) as opposed to an animal instinct kind, I got a different sensation out of it and felt that my time watching it was not wasted. Furthermore, unlike "deep" movies which I do quite enjoy, it did not leave a heavy emotional weight that made sleeping harder the night afterwards, which is something I really do not want on certain days.

This is the same with Ubisoft's Beyond Good & Evil, one of the few games I got to play over the past few months.

What is it exactly? My best description of the game's mechanics would be a simpler version of Zelda + Pokemon + Metal Gear. Feel-wise though, a tribute to Zelda would be the best description (I think both the facts that one of the special moves require charging the attack button and that the world is called Hillys are nods to the great adventure game series, not to mention you have to push boxes around). The dungeons are fun - nothing too complex - and occasionally involves Solid Snake - esque strategery to get through. The Pokemon aspect has to do with the main character Jade's profession - a reporter - since one of her side tasks is to photograph animals in Hillys.

I wish to stop for a minute and talk about Jade. Jade is now officially one of my favorite protagonists in the games I have played . This may be strange, since she is not larger-than-life at all: her lines are not extraordinarily witty, she is a decent fighter but no master ninja female assassin (who seem to be all the rage nowadays), and - the most important part - she is not meant to be sexy (okay, she is not flat, but she is not unhumanly endowed. Furthermore, she wears jeans ). Yes, even being heterosexual, I am actually glad that my Jade is not equipped with the standard video-game heaving bosoms of jigglitude that would put real women to shame. Ubisoft truly tried to sell the game because it is a good game, and not because it has a protagonist with a killer body. This normalness of Jade makes her more believable and much more appreciable as a character. Jade, the hero, could have been one of us.

Now, what about the game mechanics? Unlike many other games that falter from the kitchen-sink design principle though, this game manages to make the feel consistent in somewhat similar vein to Nethack. None of the minigames take too much of the action away, the different modes transition nicely into each other with good tempo. Basically, the best part of the design is that nothing felt like it was "stuffed" in deliberately, a good thing for many designers to learn. The whole photo-collecting thing is a cute sidequest that is always on, the races were very fun simple F-Zero deals (and one of the racetracks directly impact the flow of the game in a very interesting way), and the occasional boss battles were interesting puzzles in themselves in true Zelda fashion (of course, while you are solving the puzzle, you want to get the boss to sit still so you can take a photo of it, since the bosses count as animals you want to photograph).

To add to the fun, a really important part is the decoration. The graphics are beautiful and very soothing. Somewhat like a game of Seiklus, the act of playing is itself therapeutic. Furthermore, the music by Christophe Heral is among the best and most varied I've heard in any PC game soundtrack. Ubisoft pulled another great move in making the soundtrack available for free , and it is one of those rare soundtracks I think you do not need to have played the game to appreciate.

But that is all. No hottie, no incredible game mechanic, no especially interesting characters/backstories, and no especially captivating plot. Still, I looked forward to returning home from work and chalk up another hour every night. It being a fairly short game (10 hours?), I never got tired of the game at any point and just wanted to beat it, or thought of it as a waste of my time at any point, even if I were just sitting in my hovercraft at a corner of Hillys, seeing a flying manta ray fly by and enjoying the sunset (there is a day/night engine) as the charming but not attention-grabbing overworld music played, in true Zelda fashion.

Overall, Beyond Good & Evil was a work of love that performed admirably in all parts. No parts excelled, and there were little flaws (loading times, uninteresting characters, etc.) here and there, but that did not stop it from being the Pirates of the video games in its year - a highly enjoyable interactive experience.

P.S. Here is an excellent interview with the creator. You can see the love he put into the game here.
P.S. Real work is tough. =/ I might eventually port these articles somewhere else, but I will try to never give up. It might take months for each post, but so be it. For those of you who read this, I thank you sincerely for sharing the experiences with me.

(Pictures taken from the official site )
Sunday, June 24th, 2007
10:36 pm
Balancing Details and Fun (Subject: Fantasy General)
Everything comes down to balance. Game design is no exception - the designer's quest is to add enough detail to creath depth which makes the player enjoy the game, but not so much as to inundate the player with numbers and figures that he would run away. SSI's Fantasy General (FG) does this perfectly. Some players of SSI's series find this to be the best game in the collection. Finishing it tonight, I was not surprised.

On a higher level, the success of FG is of course an extension of the success of Panzer General (PG). This brilliant series managed to port the very niche tabletop wargame genre to the PC. These are two very different markets: the average PC gamer was younger and more impatient than the tabletop player, a situation which is probably still the case today (I'll probably talk sociology at a later post). However, without becoming unnecessarily complex, something which turns away many people from the "deeper" tabletop wargames, PG managed to bridge the link and open up the market for the turn-based wargame into the popular gaming crowd.

From Coming Soon&apos;s preview of the game. The badass Cataphractoi calvalry unit So how is FG different from its predecessors? The key is selling the fantasy motif and maximizing value from it. Thinking in this direction, it is imperative that the single-player campaign be a strong game, especially given that multiplayer was not as important or convenient then as they are now (also, turn-based games just don't do that well multiplayer). Unlike PG, FG has four heroes in the long single-player campaign, all of whom must be played differently. Krell, for example, can cast a spell per turn, somewhat like Heroes of Might and Magic and has access to magical units. Mordra, probably the hardest hero to play with, summons two random units for each battle and has access to beast units. Also, this fantasy theme lends itself to naturally borrow ideas from the fantasy RPG genre, creating unique hero units and magical items that different units may wield. The most important is probably the use of Shrines, the FG equivalent of the RPG's "treasure chest," which could heighten morale, give a new item, recruit a new unit, summon enemy units, or even change the game mechanic temporarily (such as allowing passage through woods or lava at minimal cost, or decreasing enemy morale). A proportion of the gold is spent on research of new units, which could be allocated at the player's will.

In some sense, while the game is almost entirely tactical and not strategical in scope, it has many of the short-term gains ("goodies") that make Heroes of Might and Magic such a damn addictive classic. However, the more interesting tactics which emerge from the combinatorics of the different unit abilities and combat resolutions (all of which are simple to understand) make FG a deeper game than Heroes . I spend a lot of time planning and have managed to come up with very unorthodox strategies for certain levels. Watching these plans play out perfectly is great fun.


P.S. I played with two "custom" rules: 1) no reloading unless I made a movement error (as opposed to a decision error) or if the situation was totally irreversible; 2) if a unit got to five levels of experience, I would give it a custom name as a "promotion." It was quite an endearing campaign. I would frequently make mistakes, losing sometimes my best unit or hero, but I plowed through. Playing this way, by the final battle I have lost all but a couple of my starting units. This also made the game quite a challenge on the Normal setting, which is preferred as the Difficult setting can be downright unfair.

P.S.S. Very applicable real-life tactics: use concentrated force; flank and avoid being flanked; use timely retreats; use suppression fire to tie down weakened units.

P.S.S.S. As for icing - Fantasy General has a brilliant soundtrack.

(images taken from free-game-downloads.mosw.com and www.csoon.com respectively)
Sunday, June 17th, 2007
9:48 pm
Short Thoughts - Underappreciated Oldies, Ultima, etc.
Now that college is finally over I can come back to this blog. Niceness.

With whatever time I had thinking about games, I've usually been thinking of older games that were special in some sense yet underrepresented. The spirit of Home of the Underdogs in review form, I suppose. Which means all my creative energies in that direction have been at The Abandonware Blog, where I reviewed so far X-COM: Terror from the Deep, ZZT, Castle of the Winds, Covert Action, and Hammer of the Gods, each time talking about design briefly as well.

But, more content will come here. This is just a booster post to remind myself that I have more thoughts to put down. I'm currently playing through SSI's Fantasy General, and I will have a lot to say about it when I finish.

On a final note, a really pretty and ambitious project that captures nostalgic gaming and talks about design to some extent: Blogging Ultima. The author blogs through (with screenshots) every Ultima game. I should take cue and start using screenshots somewhere.

Friday, January 26th, 2007
11:01 am
Competitive Single-Player
Last semester I played a lot of God of War. Slowly, I drew in my roommate, my suitemate, visiting prospective students - pretty much every college male who watched me play eventually asked to play it themselves. The game has a visceral impact, I think because of several factors:
    • Hypermasculinity - the game is so over-the-top with violence and its overwrought epic pseudo-Greek plot that it doesn't become disgusting or lame, but instead makes you believe in it. The earnestness with which our hero follows brute rage (and later, guilt for said rage) makes him a believable antihero. The endless, frenetic but very assailable violence does something deep in the masculine brain stem that makes it loads of fun to watch, and from there eventually fun to play.
    • Prettiness - serious gamers will deride graphics and sound, but they make a game so much more fun, and God of War is one of the best-looking, best-composed games available for the PS2. In particular, the animations for the hero Kratos are just cartoony enough so that you don't wince every time he slices someone in half, but just realistic and smooth enough to break the cognitive barrier and make you feel that you're really controlling him - they've found the sweet spot for a stereotypical hack-and-slash game.

    • Pacing / Learning Curve - the game has several difficulty levels, and it borrows several pages from Prince of Persia's "make it easy once you learn all the moves" sensibility, while offering a harder game for a second playthrough. It simultaneously teaches you about your many moves and powers in a much more friendly and exciting manner than Prince of Persia, which basically drops you into the real game with a couple tooltips. My roommate is a PC gamer, so it took him maybe an hour to get used to the PS2 controller, let alone start playing the game on easy mode, but by hour 8, he was interested in the story, able to solve complex puzzles, and looking forward to major game events.

    The same sort of thing seems to be happening with Virtua Fighter 4 Evolution, except with a quite different set of people. My girlfriend Cecilia actually asked for it - she'd remembered playing Street Fighter and liked the 3-button controls of earlier Virtua Fighter games - and until this Wednesday, she'd played about as much of the game as I had, despite not actually living here. That's serious dedication, folks. So why?
    • RPG-esque personal involvement - the game tracks your progress in minute detail, and regularly rewards you with a series of possible things to do at different semi-random frequencies: move up in rank, win prize money, complete side challenges, and play dress-up with your characters. Each character has a different and mostly fun personality, because VF really fleshes out their characters, and the ability to customize their looks to an ever-increasing degree means you'll keep coming back to play virtual dolls. The Sims is a virtual dollhouse; VF4 (and to a much lesser extent, Tekken 5 and Soul Calibur 3) is a single virtual doll, like a collaboration between yourself and a graphic designer on a D&D character.)

    • Difficulty and pacing - This comes in again as a key factor. The beginner mode in Quest let both me and Cecilia have way more fun - Cecilia is relatively successful and she only knows a half-dozen moves, while I've conquered the game with my famous lack of manual dexterity for VF's punishing desire for quick button presses. The "pacing" of facing increasingly difficult and more human-like AI opponents, often with absolutely hilarious outfits, plus the complex reward system that means you're never sure what you'll have a chance to earn next, makes playing a million 3-minute rounds of a fighting game a much more appealing proposition.

    I'm not sure what it says about me that I can just as easily get into a game of dress-up with kicks to the groin as a game of swords and sorcery with a control scheme you couldn't ask to be easier, but there you have it. One game that guys around me love, one that girls around me love. What more could I ask for?
  • Monday, January 22nd, 2007
    9:51 pm
    Two Cultures of Game Design. Case Study: Killer7

    This is the best article I've read in a while.

    A friend points out that in an American game review, the word "linear" usually carries a negative connotation, such as "this game is engaging but linear." Lovers of Japanese games would probably agree with me that this is a narrowminded opinion, looking at the great Japanese RPGs of the past and present. However, an American gamer never introduced to the likes of Chrono Trigger or the Final Fantasy series might feel cramped when he picks up one of these games, especially if the last two games he played were something like Grand Theft Auto and Elder Scrolls: Oblivion.

    The way I see it, it is basically a matter of stylistic choice. I would usually make a book/movie analog here, but obviously all books and movies are linear (barring Choose Your Own Adventures or whatever), so it would be difficult for me to state something along these lines. However, I can still argue that openendedness is just a dimension of a game, so that it isn't a necessary element of having a good game. One can argue the same for other elements, such as multiplayer capability, sound, or even graphics (Nethack, anyone?). Of course, when it is used correctly, it is a good trait that contributes to the experience.

    The Japanese game I played in question is the much-underrated Killer7, which actually pulls the concept of interactivity toward the designer to a degree that would even shock a diehard Japanese gamer.

    In Killer7, you have a 3D gameworld, but you can't go in any direction. In fact, you can only go forward, or turn around. At certain "branchpoints" you can make decisions to go in other directions, but in each "room" you can only basically go in two directions. The only thing you can do freely is aim. You'll be going by doors or open streets, but you don't have to go down every one of them to beat the game. In fact, you can't, if there is no option to go down that way. In fact, it is in some sense like a text adventure. In each room are some exits, and depending on where you came from you need to do different things to go to those exits. You get a minimal sense of control in each room from shooting around and doing some puzzles, but that is what it really is, with the writing replaced by (really stylish, might I add) a minimalist art design.

    However, looking at this from a classical point of view, this is basically someone who is writing a book or a movie: they're going to develop a world with its own rules and suspend your belief. Even the game's convoluted "plot" can just be seen as a special case of this claimf - the game clearly does not take itself seriously enough to think of it as an actual, coherent plot (I'll just name three things: one of the main characters, MASK de Smith, headbutts an incoming bullet and flattens it; one of your oppositions is a group of 8 power ranger-like men called: "The Handsome Men" who fight you in tights and ridiculous poses; the game claims that George Washington was a principal of an elementary school filled with evil). The game designer, Suda51, basically is telling you: "hey, here's my game with my bizarre ideas. You can either be rewarded by a gaming experience after accepting the rail-like game system and weirdass plot, or you can go play something else."

    And, depending on which type of gamer you are, you'll either forget about the rules and finding it natural to you to follow the game's "rails" and then chalk the game down as a trippy but immensely memorable experience, or you'll drop the controller in disgust and complain why this crappy game was ever made. So, the game acts as a lithmus test for your personality. Nifty, huh?

    Saturday, December 16th, 2006
    1:57 am
    Video Game Logic and Creativity (Subject: Riviera: The Promised Land / Yggdra Union)
    Today, my main point is a yet-unnamed concept: twisting logic enough to enrich gameplay but still being able to convince the player to play the game, and why this makes certain games special. This also has to do with Magic: The Gathering, as I'll get to eventually.

    Two fairly-recent games which truly deserve attention are Riviera: The Promised Land and Yggdra Union, both GBA games published by Atlus and developed by Sting. Abstractly, both games do two main things: take fairly-established genres with a strong (as opposed to trivial) twist, and have enough small (here, almost trivial) twists that combine to create character. The first is a quality necessary for creativity, the second is important for the game to become a classic.

    Let me expound on them a bit, starting with the first quality. Riviera is best described as an adventure, of the choosing to move around, selecting branching options type, with the important twist that it has RPG-style battles and character development. Yggdra Union is a fairly standard SRPG, where you move armies around and engage in battle, with the twist that you choose a card each turn and may only fight one battle each turn, which turns the game into a more-chess like tactical battle, where numbers matter a lot less than tactical placement. What does this mean for the games? It means that for Riviera, you are not doing a lot of leveling up (you actually can't, since it is turn-based, as I'll explain later), so the battles don't create tedium - yet you still care about advancement, so things move at a good pace. It means that for Yggdra Union, you can't charge around randomly, you need to stop and plan your moves, something lacking in many SRPGs, which makes the "S" meaningless much of the time.

    The above is cool - it is what makes many games good. X-COM was good since it takes the Civilization mold and adds a tactical component, for example. But my focus will be on the second trait - what do I mean small twists that give character? These are very brave decisions on Sting's part to add blatantly unrealistic elements into the game that somehow make sense in the game world. Some of these things we take granted (like playing games in 2D, for one), but after we've taken video game physics and video game logic for granted for a while, things stop becoming fresh. Not Riviera and Yggdra Union. The most representative such feature actually occurs in both games, every item (even weapons) can only be used a finite number of times (in Riviera this is measured by turns, in Yggdra Union battles), which makes some weird sense - but not only that, it adds greatly to gameplay since you have to plan ahead. A lot. These changes daring enough to change the way teh gamer looks at the game, but not so outrageous as to turn them away, are incredibly different strokes from the designer to come up with - they really reflect artistic mastery in the designer. Another example that is common to the two games is that both your characters and the enemies can use "desperation moves" in combat depending on the "rage bar," which is borrowed from fighting games. I know FFVII did this for the players, but have you seen the enemies with it? It adds a new scope to the tactical battles since sometimes the enemies' desperation moves are quite potent, so timing victories to avoid them becomes important.

    I'll now give some game-specific examples. In Riviera, you have weird things like being able to "level up" a character's affinitiy with an item (everything from a weapon to milk) which gives the character stat/skill gains (so if you use a weapon 10 times, or a herb 5 times, you gain some skill/stat). My first (and probably many's first) response to this is "wtf? but I guess it sort of makes sense," which is the genius of the situation: after the initial puzzlement, the player forgets this incongruousness later and then worries about things like spreading out the item's (finite) uses so that everyone can get stat gains/skills, especially since different people use different items differently (for example, one item protects the party when used by everyone except when used by one of the girls, which casts a spell). As my literature professor once said: "great writing makes the reader suspend his disbelief long enough for the writing to pull the reader into his world." This is totally true for this game. There is also a hidden romance meter (remember FFVII?).

    For Yggdra union, you have these cute features like "unioning" (depending on the gender (...) of your leader, when one army assaults another different units will join in the fight, depending on if they are in the area covered by a certain formation with the leader as the center... this is damn hard to describe) which totally changes this from a SRPG to a thinking game (it is still easy, but finding optimal moves require some combinatorial planning, and they are very rewarding when you find them). Also, there are little things like time of day, towns to visit, etc. The coolest aspect is the cards, since each card immensely affects what happens in that turn (and the enemie's turn following it). They determine the total number of points you may spend on movement (yes, a total number of points), who can use desperations, what the desperations are, and how much damage is done with the cards (which level up with use). My descriptions don't do the game justice - so you have to try to play it to see exactly what I mean - the cards make a strange video game logic that first perplexes the player, but then is ignored by the player, who ends up thinking of strategies coping with the logic. Also, your troops have morale (like health) which are NOT restored between missions - unless you get rid of items, which give different people different morale. Again, this makes no sense, but you soon get used to it.

    In one line, I can describe this phenomenon as what makes Magic: the Gathering special (Besides the collecting component). It offers a scenario where the cards and their context don't really make sense, but they make just enough sense for you to start thinking about game logic instead of whether they make sense or not. Appreciators of the game should understand this feeling completely.

    Of course, I have not mentioned the beautiful artwork, catchy music, funny Japanese-style dialogue and item descriptions. If you are treating this as a review, go play. If you aren't, then hopefully I've captured one weird aspect that makes certain games unique. I'm sure I can generalize this concept to other classical games if I tried hard enough.

    1:17 am
    The Abandonware Blog
    I've been posting at The Abandonware Blog . Of course, I do not blame my M.I.A. from my own blog on this alone - senior year has been difficult. There is also a long entry I am preparing from Hardcore Gaming 101 . Since I want each post here to have some quality and some abstract analysis of games (rather than just reviewing and such), I haven't have had many good ideas lately, probably because I haven't been playing much. Sorry about that. I do have a quick post coming up soon, however.

    So, if you like abandonware or just old games in general, do hop over to the Abandonware Blog at some time and read my (or other people's) entries.

    Thursday, June 1st, 2006
    11:53 am
    On the Metastructure of Storytelling Media
    Conveniently omitting obvious candidates for "art" such as paintings and music, I'll examine three popular mediums of storytelling-art and compare them, leading to a couple of points.

    Consider the mediums of books (A), movies (B), and video games (C). First, I'll make the (possibly old but I am not sure) observations about their inclusiveness.

    Note that A does not include B, nor does B include A. Books lack moving images (though they may have stills) that define one of the most important aspects of the movie experience. However, movies cannot simulate the paced experience of reading books, where the reader chooses to go fast or slow, taking his time to appreciate the passages that are denser yet more rewarding, and skim past things for which he has no concern. He may also go back to earlier pages by flicks of the wrist, whereas "rewinding" just doesn't seem to do the same (an action which a moviewatcher in a theater actually cannot do, as opposed to a home owner).

    Now, I will make the controversial claim that C includes both A and B. By that, I mean it is theoretically possible for any item in A or B to be presented in video-game form (without regard to whether such games will actually be published, of course).

    Obviously, games uses movies. So it is theoretically possible to take any movie and include no other components except for maybe actions to pause, rewind to a previous section, fast-forward, insert bookmarks (ironic, no?), and bonus sections and call it a "game." It would be a boring game, but still a game. For books, it is even easier - just think any scrollable tutorial screen or one of the many books in "Elder Scrolls: Morrowind" (there is the additional caveat, of course, of the problem with the lack of a hand to read the book with and the "feel" for the book. But for now we can assume we are dealing with e-books or something...).

    Now, obviously, I do not mean we should get rid of books and movies entirely! This brings us to the first point: bigger is not always better. This seems somewhat paradoxial, but it makes sense in considering that each storytelling medium is not defined by simply what it can do, but also societal and cultural values associated with it. Games (at least not now) are considered to be more along the lines of juvenile pursuit, and it seems weird to define the Encyclopedia Britannica as a game (although as we saw, we may definitely create a theoretical "game" which basically is the encyclopedia!). This reminds us of the all-important maxim:

    In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they aren't.

    Jests aside, what constructive things can we learn? On the positive side, I think an immediate conclusion is that games are capable of so much more than we give them credit for (and what they are actually used for). Game designers should realize that they have an artistic medium of immense potential and be proud of it. They can (and should) look at the novels and films, their less-powerful but more venerable ancestors, and seek their wisdom. One specific example is writing: Yes, writing in games right now are definitely more eloquent than the "a Winner is you" generation of the 90's, but literary-wise, they are still at best even with the low-end of popular fiction writing. The classic novels have their charm for a reason, and games should learn from them. And I mean beyond long nouns and flamboyant adjectives. That does not define good writing. Of course, since writing is getting noticably better, I'll wait before making more comments.

    On the negative side, I'll misquote Spiderman (or Spiderman II?) and say that "with great power comes great responsibility" (actually, this theme is as old as The Once and Future King, which is a great novel, by the way). I think one of the responsibilities of designers is to explore the medium for artistic rather than material gains, and take some responsibility on the increasing chunks their works are taking out of the children's time. I don't mean forcing educational value into games - geez, games were made to entertain - but at least feel guilty for doing video-game versions of many of the saturday-morning cartoons that most self-respecting teenagers will even look back and regret watching. Give the players innovation, give them some art. How about more ICO's and Katamari Damacy's? I don't know if the world really needs that many more Doom's and Quake's - of course, I don't mind Half-life or Counter-strike, both of which actively sought to introduce new things into the FPS genre.

    I think I'll have more to say with this topic later, but my hands are tired.

    Tuesday, March 21st, 2006
    1:33 am
    Reading on Theory
    Sorry, life has been hectic and I haven't had time to play many games nor think about design. Though here are a couple of book recommendations:

    A Theory of Fun is a very readable yet enlightening look at game design and why we play games. Each flap has the left page being text and the right being that of a comic, which is an original and enjoyable style. I highly recommend it and I think it will set a high standard for future books in the field.

    Rules of Play is a nice mammoth text on the theory of games. It is a collection of my favorite abstraction: that to cover games as a unified model of video games, sports, board games, etc. in a broad model and not narrowly and separately as they are usually treated.

    Playing to Win is by David Sirlin of sirlin.net fame and one of my idols. Not only is his website great, he covers a lot of fundamental questions of competitive game playing in this book, and compares competitive video games to sports and board games, again in line with abstractions I like. He is a high-level Street Fighter player and makes many connections there, and I think this a very good treatment of this subject which sadly does not get enough attention.

    Tuesday, November 29th, 2005
    1:41 am
    online tcgs?
    Over the past week I downloaded and played the Magic and LOTR Online Tutorials, as well as the Magic Online free trial. Both games promise (at sky-high prices) to let you play your favorite game online, so nobody can "forget" to take an action and you can play people all over the world. Here's the rundown:

    Strengths of Magic Online
    • A really handy program, with lots of menu options and hotkeys, makes using things intuitive. The action stack (probably the most difficult thing to understand about the game) is handled very intuitively, and the game runs blazingly fast because it's all on your hard drive. However, I do wish for an "automatically say Yes to this ability" option, which would make games with the trigger-heavy starter decks much faster.

    • The tutorial game against the computer lets you mix-and-match two colors (a big selling point of the new Ravnica block), while the free trial lets you use a full five mono-color starters, and against other trial players no less. I've definitely gotten better at Magic by playing online with these decks, sealed though they be. It's loads of fun to crush random noobs, or actually lose to someone who knows what he's doing.

    • I'll say it again: ONLINE PLAY. Also, the numbers and abilities of your modifiers are automatically added, a big help when calculating stuff like Blanchwood Armor. It's really nice not to have to keep track of these unwieldy numbers.

    Weaknesses of Magic Online
    • The tutorial game is very weak because of AI and consistency problems. The AI will do really stupid things against you (wasting its power cards on your weenie creatures, choosing blockers in odd ways, etc.), and because it runs three colors, it has a high chance of either drawing a perfect hand and killing you for free or getting manascrewed and losing for free. It's also never fun to see the AI doing things you can't (like using a deck you can't pick).

    • The tutorial never explains when or why to use certain cards. For example, I haven't met a single person who understood when to use Master Decoy (in the beginning of combat step, which you have to enable manually) without learning it the hard way. And it'll also prompt you to emulate the computer by doing things as soon as possible instead of waiting until you actually want to do them.

    • The tutorial lets you get away with things you can't do online, like tap your lands after you play a card. I much prefer the tutorial's method, because Magic Online's "must tap beforehand" is quite annoying, especially when I want to pay X for something. This adds needless learning curve and many a newbie has lost by mana burning themselves due to vague phase descriptions.

    • The free trial uses Ninth Edition (as it should) but the tutorial uses Eighth Edition. This is a definite loss, as the Ninth Edition starters are way better than the Eighth Edition bombs.

    Strengths of LOTR Online
    • LOTR benefits even more than Magic from having the computer add numbers for you, as there's endless stat and cost modifications. And it auto-sorts your cards for you, and lets you undo assignment choices (the most strategic part of the game), which is quite nice. The sounds are much better, with a satisfying thwock for archery fire and the like. In general, it emulates the feel of the physical game more, with more automated passing when you have no opportunity to respond.

    • The 2 starters available are pre-seeded with some juicy rares, all of which are extremely handy for the matchup at hand. This makes games faster and more exciting. It also helps that the importance of sites is played up beyond what it often is in the real game. And no balance problems like in Magic either.

    • The AI is mean, nasty, and generally a difficult opponent. I had definite trouble in the Rohan/Uruks mirror match, until I figured out how to bait it into using its strength pumps early. And it looks like it discards Still They Came just like I do, 'cause it's a bad card.

    Weaknesses of LOTR Online
    • The "basic" game is totally scripted and much stupider than the advanced game. It's very difficult to learn a game when you are forced to make the plays the tutorial tells you, which at times aren't even the best plays to make. It doesn't help any that you're immediately thrown to the wolves in the advanced game, with no guide on how to do the more important aspects of the game like double moves or assigning minions, with an opponent who throws out game-winning cards like Savagery at just the wrong time.

    • The computer does have faults: it doesn't save its events for Frodo, it never tricks you into double-moving, it's too happy to throw away unique companions rather than add burdens to Frodo, and it bids way too high at the start of the game. However, these are minor quibbles, and I suspect there must be some hardcoded strategies in there that make sure the AI plays its rares at just the right time.

    • Only two starter decks and no online play means that there are exactly four matchups you can play, severely limiting your choices. Granted, given the next bullet point online play would be close to impossible, but still, sealed deck LOTR is a lot more about the mindgames and less about your deckbuilding chops than Magic, so online play is sorely missed.

    • The tutorial is very dated. So old, in fact, that in a couple months all the cards in it will have been rotated out of Standard format. This risks alienating players who actually buy LOTR Online, as they have no idea how to play sites now, or why muster is good, or whatever.

    • The "emulate physical game" ideal goes a little too far when it gives you physical tokens instead of numbers and expects you to count them all. For the twilight pool (which often has over a dozen tokens in it) there is at least a mouseover function, but counting Frodo's myriad burdens and wounds requires too much bookkeeping of the sort an online game is supposed to eliminate.

    I'd have to say Magic Online is a better implementation of the online TCG, but they could stand to take some lessons from LOTR Online, which looks and sounds better, isn't narrated in a dorky monotone, and doesn't force you to press "Pass" all the time when you have nothing you could possibly play.

    I think the inherent dis/advantages of the games even out, as a sidenote. Magic's rules are a lot simpler (you play your spells, you play your mana, everything goes out on the table and you swing with all your guys) than LOTR's byzantine seven-recurring-phases scheme, so a single "You could play creatures now, but you might as well attack first." dialog box introduces you to the right way to play things, as opposed to lots of "Skip the Maneuver phase for this basic game" confusion. (Hey, at least there's no seed phase!) On the other hand, in Magic, you have to worry about getting enough of the right mana from turn one, and I've played many games that featured a ten-turn stall while both players topdecked their way to a solution, or a straightforward mana screw while player 2 plays the game alone. In LOTR, the insane tempo speedup means you always have a hand chock-full of playable cards. So neither one is really easier to learn. Magic is easier to pick up and play, but also much easier to be horrible at.
    Friday, November 11th, 2005
    9:48 pm
    Eternal Daughter 1: on the first major crossover genre and why it worked
    To those of my friends who know gaming as one of my hobbies (one too much neglected during midterm season, unfortunately), occasionally they stop by and ask what game I am currently playing or analyzing. The one that I had the honor of playing for the past few weeks was Blackeye Software's freeware work of love, Eternal Daughter (http://www.derekyu.com/games.html). However, it was difficult to answer "Eternal Daughter" to them, and I usually smile and respond with a "oh, nothing really".

    Is this to say Eternal Daughter is a game I did not like? Far from it - every day I anticipated coming back and dedicating a half hour or an hour on it (as much as a busy schedule admits) to enjoy its rich graphics with every sign of care and originality, its pleasant and invigorating soundtrack, and of course the sheer difficulty that marks an old-school console gem. Is this to say I was not satisfied with the ending? No - I just finished writing an email to one of the authors, Derek Yu, in a heartfelt gesture of gratitude. The difficulty was to explain it. Nobody in the dorm halls would know the name, and how to answer the followups "so, why is it good?" "why do you like it so much?" would be more daunting tasks than my math homework. For some of my louder friends on the side of video game illiteracy (which is most of them, I am afraid) that actually consider themselves "gamers", I might get a good-natured, but still hurtful jest "what is this 2D crap?" or "I like Halo better".

    The irrelevance of such comments aside, how did I have enough time to explain to them how important games like Eternal Daughter were to the history of modern games?

    The genre, which I will refer to as the platformer RPG, basically lauched with Nintendo's hit, Metroid, in 1986. Every gamer of the NES console generation knows of this gem, which was one of the most absorbing titles the NES had in its lifetime. Some of this attraction was possibly due to its shortcomings (the repeated use of certain tiles made the world of Metroid even more labyrinthe, and the lack of paralax scrolling colored backgrounds made the game more atmospheric, even scary). It was a platformer, not too far from the Mario mold in an abstract sense, but instead of being separated into levels, the entire game was one continuous level. It therefore makes sense for the main character to have more permanent powerups (as opposed to level-separated games like platformers or shooters), and much more freedom. One can say this is one of the first popular attempts at introducing open-ended play.

    With one big level, designers can create patterns and references from one part of the world to the next that makes more gradual sense as players gain more experience and power (for example: there is a powerup near the beginning of the game that the hero cannot reach, but many hours later the hero is given an ability that allows him to return and retrieve it). In this sense, I can go as far to say as this is really the same concept as the also well-known Legend of Zelda series, itself not quite a "RPG" as many would classify it, but an action game with RPG elements (or, to some, an RPG game with action elements). This abstract innovation in design itself gave credibility to Metroid as a good game. Its memorable areas, ominous music, and bosses made it a classic.

    It is no surprise then that the first dedication the programming group gave was to Super Metroid, Nintendo's long awaited sequel. The second was to Castlevania, Symphony of the Night, hailed by some as "the best Platformer of all time" or "the best Game of all time".

    What makes a cross-genre attractive? The platformer side attracted gamers of the classical button-reflex caliber (shooters, platformers, etc.), but the large world and permanent growth sought favor from gamers who liked to "build" characters and watch them gain in ability (not to mention create longer and more coherent storylines than what usual platformers offer). In terms of evolution, games also need cross-genres (no genetics reference intended, but the idea is similar) to keep novelty alive. The immensely popular action-RPGs of today (Deus Ex, Morrowind, etc.) are testaments to this.

    Of course, simple combination of two genres run out quickly (action-puzzlers can only go so far as Puyo Puyo and Puzzle Fighter, at least for now). So good innovation is not limited to recombination alone. But Metroid was one of the first games putting it in this direction. X-COM would connect strategy and tactics on the PC, and Elder Scrolls: Arena (even Dungeon Master) helped to connect RPG with action-based gameplay. It is with these rich combinations and evolution that gives us gems such as Smash Bros. and *name-game-with-pokemon-esque-collecting-elements* today.

    Eternal Daughter is what it sounds like - an eternal daughter of one of hte most pivotal movements in game history that is even alive today (though sadly mostly only on the GBA) with reincarnations like the geniusly crafted Mega Man Zero series or Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow. In the freeware realm, it continues traditions of, and is followed by, works of art such as Cave Story or Akuji the Demon. Even when being outshadowed by the "l33t gamer" generation that only knows FPSes and MMORPGs, one can find a group dedicated to such games that have long shown themselves as true works of digital art. Design-wise, a valuable lesson is evolutionary genetics (in the form of recombination and selection of good traits) can indeed be applied to media with seeming minds of their own.


    P.S. Oh yeah, do play Eternal Daughter. It is hard, however - I challenge the way-too-many self-acclaimed "gamers" to give it a shot. Hopefully, you'll fall in love (even if you don't admit it) with something that you might have once called a relic of video game history.
    3:56 pm
    card game mechanics part 1
    While designing a hypothetical trading card game (TCG), I decided that I needed a bigger look on what it really means to have a "mechanic" in a card game. So I started listing some mechanics - "draw extra cards", "discard a card from your hand," "make your existing cards better"... That didn't work well. So I went up a couple levels of abstraction until I came up with this play diagram: Deck -> Hand -> Play -> Discard. The closer something is to being "in play", the more easily accessible it is, and therefore the more value it has. The arrows represent the default progression of cards in all TCGs. Changing this progression in your favor is one of the key ways to success in a card game. (Traditional card games require both players to use the same amount of cards at once time, and thus lack this element.)

    As an example, the card game of Uno looks like this: (Shared) Deck -> Hand -> Play. Your objective is to put all your cards in play. The speed of Deck -> Hand is normally zero and the speed of Hand -> Play is normally one per turn (you play an appropriate card onto the stack). The number cards have exactly one ability: if the opponent does not have a proper followup card, they force a random single-turn increase in their Deck->Hand. This is a powerful ability, but limited because the opponent has many ways to guard against it, and so the number cards are the weakest.

    There are special cards (Skip, Reverse, Draw Two) with single abilities that are conceptually easy to understand, and since their effect cannot be prevented, they are generally more powerful than the "vanilla" number cards. They also happen to be number cards (i.e. they have a color and number that can cause extra drawing for the next player), so they are unequivocally better.

    The most powerful cards are Wild and Wild Draw Four. These are good for a number of reasons: they break the restrictions your opponents' number cards place on your next card (you can play them any time), they have a more powerful version of the number card ability (because they have no number, only color, and thus the opponent is more restricted in his card play options), and a properly timed Wild Draw Four essentially causes the next player to lose the game because it breaches the usual Deck->Hand gap so badly. From a flavor perspective, the cards are very visually distinctive, and even powerful, as black is a striking departure from the primary colors of the number cards.

    Uno is an obviously unbalanced game in the sense that the cards stack up into an obvious power order. It is balanced because everyone draws from the same set of cards, and because the more powerful cards are restricted to a fixed number per deck.

    Poker is far simpler: all cards are restricted to one per deck, and there is a sharply defined power order and no opportunity to mess with the randomness of card distribution. Your strategic options all stem from the external, gambling aspect, as anyone who has ever tried to play poker without betting knows. You could just as easily be betting on random numbers from a theoretical perspective, although the flavor is much improved by using a standard deck of cards.

    But now imagine the Poker TCG: you are allowed to use any non-joker cards you want in your deck, which only you draw from. If you're playing five-card draw poker, there are a very few possible options left. (You can't just come to the tournament with a normal deck, because you'll be struck drawing a pair of sevens while everybody else has an actual plan for victory.) The deck to beat is obviously Four of a Kind, which plays 52 aces, meaning it will beat everything except a straight/royal flush 100% of the time. So can you make a Straight Flush deck that will put one together over 50% of the time? Probably not, because your Poker TCG lacks any ability to modify the random values, and you have to put together a five-card combo with no room for extras. If each player gets to trade in some cards, the Royal Flush deck gets better. If each player can hold seven cards (as with seven-card stud), the Royal Flush deck gets a lot better. If there are cards dealt to you from an outside deck (as with Texas Hold-Em or blackjack), the Royal Flush deck takes a nosedive, because virtually 100% of the time it's better to have two aces than it is to have two high spades. Et cetera.

    To complete our conceptual journey to TCGs, now imagine that the possible cards to choose from include not only the standard 52, but also cards that have all these modifications as described in the last paragraph, or cards that protect you from those modifications. For example, the Royal Flush deck would "run" (i.e. use) many copies of cards that let you draw extra cards, or cards that let you trade in cards, while a Four Aces deck would run cards that limit the number of cards drawn, or decrease the number of cards you can trade in (since a starting hand for Four Aces is the best hand it will ever get). However, it won't play many of these special cards, because each one threatens the consistency of the Four Aces strategy - what if you draw three tricky cards and two aces? Now a Royal Flush deck could beat you even if it doesn't get the whole thing set up! Unless, of course, the Flush deck's tricky cards allow 7 cards to be drawn instead of 5...

    So the virtue of making your own deck of cards does not necessarily come from the interactions between the cards once they are in play, but rather the ability to alter the conditions under which the game is played. Of course, this can go too far; some of the most "innovative" ideas have ended in awful stalls where neither player's deck was prepared to play under the new rules and things slowly grind to a halt. Join me next time as I talk about the color pie.
    Sunday, October 23rd, 2005
    10:13 pm
    Looking Up and Looking Down
    Today's subject is equally applicable to competitive video games as any competitive activity, for winning and losing is ubiquitous in the human (especially male post-adolescent) psyche. I will not digress into evolutionary psychology on why natural selection made males this way, or why our peculiar phelogyny semi-predicts a world where athletes gets paid as much as they do (and why I think they deserve to). However, it is an age-old idea that wouldn't mind being repeated again:

    The top is a slippery place.

    It does not matter if it were the U.S. Open tennis championships or your dorm Halo crew. We (and I focus again on post-adolescent males) make so much of a deal on being on top of everything from physical strength to button-mashing that all other purposes of life are lost in the instant where winning and losing is on the line. If I were to go back to biology again, I might blunder an attempt to explain why it is easy to be fired up and adjust to be first when you are the second best, whether it be in the state or on your floor. However, one thing remains constant - if you are at the top you can fall pretty hard, since you have no motivation.

    So for those standing on top - beware, people are grasping at your ankles. For those underneath them, good luck catching up. A competitive game needs two players, not one.

    Sunday, August 7th, 2005
    9:25 pm
    Number-Crunching an RTS
    (cross-posted to my lj)

    For the last few days I've been working on a master list of the key variables in the RTS Total Annihilation. (My group plays the Uberhack balance mod, so I had to make the chart myself from the stats at BSR's R&D.) What makes TA conducive to analysis is its open-ended structure: potentially infinite self-contained economy, no rock-paper-scissors balancing or research trees, and a genuine physics model. The five variables I chose as the real keys to effectiveness were range, damage, speed, armor, and cost.

    Right now, my formula goes like this:
    1. Adjust values to equivalence for the Raider, the "average" medium tank unit.
    2. Weight range 3x as heavy and damage as 1.5x as heavy as speed and armor.
    3. Divide by total to give effectiveness in terms of number of Raiders.
    4. In a separate column, calculate cost (metal + 1/60 energy, the exchange rate available at the beginning of the game) and divide effectiveness by ln(cost), to reflect the increasing ease of obtaining resources as the game progresses.

    Since my website is down, instead of giving you the chart, I'll simply say that the game's super-units (rapid-fire artillery, giant robots, blue lasers) score leagues above the rest of the crowd, as expected, followed closely by the heavy-hitters we all know and love from experience. Scout units and light defenses rank at the bottom, as expected. The one update I need is a way to factor in the difficulty of using siege cannons, which right now rank in the top 10 of mobile units despite a hefty 75% damage cut.

    Once the site is back up, I'll make another post with a fixed chart and my SmartDraw diagrams of the four phases of an RTS game (early, mid, late, end).
    Wednesday, June 1st, 2005
    2:08 am
    TCG versus RPG
    The TCG (trading card game) industry is a tricky one to manage. You're essentially creating two games - one with starter decks and a more complicated, deeper and expensive one with packs. Then you have to release an expansion set for your game every three months, and make them good (and pretty) enough so people will keep buying. Now combine that with a baseball cards business model: from the $10-a set casual players all the way to the $150-a-set hardcore players and the $250-a-set collectors, everybody has to feel they're getting their money's worth.

    The traditional method for maintaining interest in successive sets is to add new mechanics (drawing on new material from the source franchise, of course) that are slightly more powerful than the old ones, while giving old mechanics a handful of new tricks so they can compete. This satisfies the casual players and collectors (for instance, Decipher's Star Wars game would introduce each expansion set around the theme of a planet, like Hoth or Dagobah). The hardcore players are driven along by the excitement of the new and interesting mechanics, as well as the promise of upgrading their current decks. Of course, over time old strategies will be almost completely replaced with the new, better cards, but to get there you have to keep a regular buying (or trading) schedule. The baseball-card distribution system means that you have to buy virtually the entire set to have enough material to trade for the deck you really want, which makes you more likely to make more decks and buy more cards. It's a tidy little system, until it goes wrong.

    The venerable Magic: The Gathering TCG is still the most popular of all, with over 6 million players, and its popularity allows it a unique method of fixing problems: every year (3 sets), the slate of available cards is wiped clean. In tournament play, you can only use new cards. The design team carries over some of the most popular and iconic cards, but only the ones they're sure won't break the game. This allows a fresh infusion of craziness into each set, but turns casual play into a race between admittedly broken decks. Unfortunately, it creates a huge rift between casual and tournament players: unless you want to abandon your favorite deck on a regular basis, you can't be a pro, sorry. For less popular games, this would outright kill the scene.

    Some companies simply throw up their hands and forget about balancing. For a game based on a cultural fad, the casual market is the real source of money, so the more special Johnny can feel, the more he'll want to buy, and he won't care when he finds out the game is trash. Pokemon and Yugioh do this, although Yugioh surprisingly turned out to have a hardcore following, so the designers were forced to create extensive lists of banned or heavily restricted cards. I don't expect either to outlast the competition.

    Decipher, however, tends to balance its TCGs as if they were RPGs, not making any cards technically useless but providing a sliding scale of power that keeps going up until the game drowns under its own weight. Let's examine how each of those played out.

    The Star Trek TCG was riddled by poor design from the start: a lengthy pre-game setup phase, counterintuitive battle mechanics, virtually nothing recognizable in the common set to induce casual players, and rares so powerful they essentially created alternate win conditions for the game. The solution was not to fix the game, but to expand the rules to be faithful to the shows and movies so they could fit in as many appeal-to-collector-and-rabid-fan cards as possible. The effectiveness of a card often had little to do with anything else. Decipher has tried several times to fix it, including one total rewrite of the rules, but the prognosis is still not good.

    The Star Wars TCG, in an attempt to draw in a universe as huge as Star Trek without compounding rules, moved everything to a very abstract level. Instead of counting numbers, players counted cards in different piles; instead of scoring points or dealing damage, players discarded cards from opponent's piles to win the game. Each new mechanic was its own little piece of an infinite gameplay pie. With such a wide focus, however, it was only a matter of time before interest would wane - why should I go out and buy Jabba's minions when my turn-Luke-to-evil deck will work fine whether I buy the set or not? So Decipher took a twofold approach to rekindling interest, and with their trademark "savvy", decided to add a nice hefty power curve as soon as they ran out of movies to draw from, and to add entirely new (insanely powerful) card types to keep the spirit of the game alive. Some disagree that objective and orders cards were the death of Star Wars, essentially dictating how you could play such an open-ended game. But by the time Episode One cards rolled around, the game had become such a clamor of overpowered and unnecessarily complex new mechanics that it died too. The guys who did Magic got the license from Decipher and promptly marketed it to the too-busy-to-understand-Magic market.

    Decipher's latest major effort, Lord of the Rings TCG, promised to be different. I was excited that they'd decided to keep everything simple and tightly focused, with a heavy emphasis on common versions of recognizable things (like Gandalf or the Mines of Moria) that did much the same thing as their rare versions, and in some decks were just as good. As the card sets progressed through the trilogy, the power curve seemed rather friendly, making leaps at each movie but allowing room for the trademark cards of every set to be used. New mechanics were generally quite mild, or were introduced as story elements. However, Decipher proved about as strong as Frodo, and when the end was near, gave in to the marketing dark side. The power curve reared its ugly head with the extra-expensive, blatantly overpowered, blatantly "collectors item" Reflections set. Reflections was designed to correct LOTR TCG's own design mistakes (like the uselessness of Dwarves) and to get the players used to a much more freeform game as they prepared to wipe the slate clean again, but instead showed how bad an idea it was to make a set entirely out of super-rares. Having jacked up the power curve sufficiently, Decipher made its second trademark mistake again: trying to redo everything as soon as the curve becomes untenable.

    The situation of the Shadows set in LOTR is as if the people behind Magic, finding green cards needed fixing, decided to add a new color, purple, with the same theme as green. To make sure purple wasn't eclipsed, they replaced some of the key mechanics (say, card drawing) in every color with a new mechanic that you could use in every color except green. Tee hee!
    Saturday, May 21st, 2005
    1:25 am
    On Lives of Multiplayer Games
    With sadness I write this entry - may you rest in peace, guardimpact.com.

    As a social organism, the multiplayer game (seems to be the equivalent of the word "game") nowadays is very different from its older brother, the single-player game. While it is usually deeper - in that you are usually sparring against human minds and therefore make complex psychological decisions instead of just solidifying dexterity for execution, as is in the case of most singleplayer games that require skill of some sort - it is also inherently shorter-lived.

    The reason? Plain and simple - when the people move on to a new game, the scene dies, and there is no reason to play the game anymore.

    Maybe this is why Mario Bros. survives to this day - you can still pull out a NES or emulate it and relive the childhood glory of an Italian plumber hero, wistful of the speeding technology of the 21st century, while Street Fighter II doesn't. Though both, I can argue, are equally important to their genre, and to the entire family of the video game.

    Maybe this is why you can still find a shrine to, say, Shining Force, but not one for Madden 2004.

    There's something sad about this - to trade for depth, socialness, and growth, the multiplayer game sacrifices lifespan. Its goal is not to be remembered forever, but to live as a bright spark in one's life. 30 years from now, only the diehard game historians will remember Soul Calibur, but Mario will still live through reincarnations and historical impact.

    You can also think of the multiplayer as a parasite - blessed with quick energy and growth through the social network it feasts on, sapping the competitiveness and ingeuity of the real game players of our generation, then quickly receding after its host becomes disinterested. With the death of competition comes the death of the game.

    Sadly romantic either way, whether you look at it in a positive or negative light.

    -Yan Zhang

    P.S. guardimpact.com was the primary source of incredible high-level strategy for the original Soul Calibur. Alas, with the rise of SC2 (even that is on the decline, competing with just better-sold games such as T5 and DOA series, soon to be replaced by SC3), another great game bites the dust.
    Tuesday, May 10th, 2005
    9:35 pm
    The Last Fantasy - On Final Fantasy Tactics Advance

    McGregor, the double-wielding Ninja struck the final blow as the Il-grim fell. With it the boss died. Unlike other games, the boss is not a demon lord, a corrupt emperor, or the essence of chaos. The Il-grim is the beautiful shaper of wishes, the embodiment of dreams, the loving foster parent of a poor boy abused by bullies and tormented by a life without a mother. The moral ambiguity of the final act of slaying this combination of the dreams of an entire continent and the illusions of a world which struggled with our own is only magnified with its weapons, the opposites "Genesis" and "Wicca".

    Yan, the leader of Clan MysticS, knew he was destroying dreams, dreams of a place where he had power and prestiege, to go back to a world where he was just the transfer kid, where his brother cannot walk, and where he has no aptitude with a sword. In return, he gets to touch, feel, taste, hear, and smell what is real. Even with the Matrix stealing the spotlight since the turn of the century, the power of this theme fuels the phlosophy behind the game. Here, it takes the meaning one step further, for even if the leader of the clan returned to Ivalice - the real Ivalice, without the tantalizing Vieras, the mischevious Moogles, or the studious Nu Mous - what can one say about the player on Earth with his fingers on the Game Boy Advance?

    Intended or not, the irony is striking. The lesson FFTA teaches seems contrary to its existence - it teaches you to escape a dream world, even though it is wonderful. But it obviously wanted you to buy the cartridge, to return to the Pub for mission after mission, to visit the Monster Bank for the obligatory Pokemon status that all modern GBA games share, and to max-out the ability-stealing, double-Nosada wielding ninja?

    I cannot explain this incongruence. I however fail to think of another game that had kept me up until 6:00 AM. It is not perfect at all, and contained many design flaws (cumbersome item selection, rushed plot for much of the game, . . .), though it far made up for it with innovation (player-controlled placement of new areas on a map, the idea of laws and antilaws during battle, weaving the previous idea seamlessly into the plot . . .).

    It does, however, tell me to wake up and remind myself of the real world, carrying with myself the two valuable gems that I've gained from this dispatch: the above conflict between truth and reality applied one level higher than in the game, and the idea of laws - why we have them, why people fight against them, why people fight for them,and why they become what they are. Even in a game we have laws - though it might just be a game inside a game.

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