On Holding a Gaming Tournament/Event

October 2, 2011 - Leave a Response

So the evening of the 1st of October, 2011, I held an Indie Gaming Tournament for a small group of acquaintances (residents of my dormitory). From this event, I’ve gleaned a few things regarding organizing gaming tournaments, and deciding which games will be best for play. I will outline some of the guidelines one should consider when deciding to hold such an event themselves for their friends and how such an event could be newbie friendly.

The first thing to decide when planning a tournament is the professional level. By this, I mean that you should ask yourself how important a participant’s background in gaming is. For example, a highly professional tournament would be a game such as Starcraft, Counter Strike, or even Mario Kart. In games such as these, where a fanbase and a professional player base is already established, a participant’s background in such games greatly affects the outcome of the tournament. If you have a Starcraft tournament, for example, the player that’s already Master league on his own would definitely have the strong advantage compared to the first time players or even the medium level players. This tournament becomes fairly one sided in favor of the player who has already spent that much more time on the game than anyone else.

As a result, when you decide your professional level, you decide your participant-base from the start. A highly professional tournament will involve players that are confident in their ability in that game, while a highly unprofessional tournament will involve players that need not be confident in their ability because not many others will be as well. An example of a highly unprofessional tournament would be that involving a game or genre that has a very small fanbase. In North America, genres such as roguelikes, shmups, and puzzle-platformers are good choices and even in the more popular genres, if the game is unlikely to be well known, it is a strong choice.

For my tournament, I chose to go the highly unprofessional route and included a variety of games from independent and largely unknown developers. Here, we come across the second question to ask when planning a tournament. This is the most obvious question as well, namely, game choice. Which game will you be playing? Will you play just one or multiple? But the questions don’t stop there. By asking these questions, you are ultimately asking the larger question of “Who do I want to be playing in this tournament?” This is even more important in a professional tournament than an unprofessional one because your game choice will limit certain players over others. For example, a Starcraft tournament will not attract the Counter Strike junkies and a Mario Kart tournament will not attract the Super Smash Brawl players. Of course, a multi-game tournament eliminates some of that burden. If you have a tournament that is played with multiple games, you can incorporate more people. And thus, the question still remains, who do you want playing in this tournament? If you want masters of a certain game, you aim for a more depth based tournament, while if you want everyone, even the novices, to play, you aim for a breadth tournament.

Once you are done deciding which of depth and breadth in participant base you prefer, the games you can choose become more limited. If you chose depth, you are more or less limited to single games with a strong player-base in either the game itself or the genre it is associated with. A professional depth racing tournament, for example, would play Mario Kart while an unprofessional depth racing tournament would play a lesser known game such as Proun. If you chose breadth, on the other hand, you are now limited to multiple games in varying genres. A professional breadth tournament could include Starcraft, Smash Brawl, and Counter Strike to cover the RTS, 2D fighting, and FPS genres while an unprofessional breadth tournament could do the same three genres with less played games such as Achron, Tekken, and Soldat.

At this point, breadth tournaments have additional concerns, specifically, the genres or games to include. Because a breadth tournament is not bound by a single game, there needs to be a variety of games that attract the audience you are looking for. A professional game has a slightly easier time because the games are so high profile as it stands. For a professional tournament, a new set of players is added with each additional game, so the most significant question is a matter of balancing the genres for an even spread. An unprofessional game has a harder time. Because an unprofessional tournament is meant to discourage mastery, the less popular genres must be chosen to fully include all players of all skill levels.

The tournament that I held was a highly unprofessional, breadth tournament, designed to make sure that no player had an advantage by being exposed to any of the games beforehand. Given this stringent requirement, the game choice was limited to games solely from independent developers. Another requirement for my tournament was cost, a common issue with breadth tournaments because the organizer is expected to provide the games. As such, freeware was a definite requirement with the potential of a couple games that were paid for, but had local multiplayer. In addition, the tournament required some measure of comparison between the players. This meant that the selection was once more narrowed down to fairly short, time-based or score-based games, once again limiting the genre choice.

When planning a tournament with requirements as stringent as these, it is recommended that the search begin early. If possible, it is definitely recommended to get advice from those more experienced than you and to take recommendations from definite non-participants. I started planning two months in advance and ultimately managed to find enough games to support several rounds of gaming with a standard double elimination bracket. The games I used are on the bottom of the article and I might even review a couple of them in the future.

Fortunately enough, I was able to entertain most of my participants with these games and add a little bit of diversity to their interests in gaming. And I feel satisfied at just that.


Gear (Digipen)

Redivivus (Digipen)

Proun (Joost)

Super Crate Box (Vlambeer)

Nation Red Demo (Kaos Studios)

No Time To Explain (tinybuildgames)

Jamestown (Final Form Games)

Spelunky (Mossmouth)


Deus Ex: Human Revolution – An Advanced Lesson in World Building

September 5, 2011 - Leave a Response

Hello all. It’s been a while since my last post, forgive me but I don’t have that much time to play games. Still changing my reviewing format, but I guess my style really doesn’t change all that much.

Game: Deus Ex Human Revolution
Genre: Action RPG
Play Time: 25~40 hours


So, obviously, Deus Ex isn’t an Indie Game. But I started playing it after Blocks That Matter and found myself very pleasantly enthralled in the game for the 30 or so hours I’ve played. But beyond the fact that it’s a well made triple-A game, I want to make a note of DXHR for one exemplary reason, the Story.

Regarding Everything Else Except the Story: The Art of Forcing Choice

DXHR is a polished and well made game even without the story. The genre is, like almost every triple-A game ever these days, Action RPG. But, it’s a good ARPG. In fact, it’s a fairly awesome ARPG considering the fact that it’s a triple-A game. The reason behind this is the fact that this game allows for, according to the developers, ‘four pillars of gameplay.’ These ‘pillars’ are Combat, Stealth, Hacking and Exploration and these four styles of gameplay weave in and out of each other fluidly, allowing natural transitions from one to the other.

As such, you have this newfangled aspect of gaming called choice laid in front of you. And this is where DXHR truly embraces the Western RPG format; where you role-play yourself through an avatar in a new world. For example, I’m not much a fan of cover-based shooting, or FPSs in general. As a result, I made a non-lethal melee specialist, going for stealthy approaches and quick, silent takedowns. But on that same vein, you could just as easily make a tank going on a shooting spree. This is where the level design shines through. You’re allowed to progress through the game however you want. If you feel like stealthily climbing vents and ladders through an entire area, you are very welcome to do so without harming a fly. If you feel like sitting on a ledge or behind a box and sniping off everyone, you’re more than welcome to do that as well. The experience gain is adequately balanced based on difficulty of the route you’re taking and understanding which route is more difficult is intuitive.

But, of course, there are problems. The biggest qualm I have about this game is the level of repetitiveness of the progression. Of course, this has some part to do with my completionist nature which forces me to wipe out every room AND explore every tunnel, but it also has to do with the restrictions the game imposes on itself. The challenges in the game progress in a room by room fashion. This is to be expected, there isn’t really any other way to do this type of game, but because of this, things begin to repeat after a while. Ultimately, every difficulty is overcome by a) incapacitating everyone or b) bypassing everyone via some vent or crawling around. And once you’ve knocked out your 100th enemy (there’s an achievement for that) half way through the game, you realize how mechanical the gameplay can be.

What’s worse, is that the upgrades available don’t change your playstyle all too much. Sure, the invisibility upgrade lets you bypass enemies more easily and the parachute upgrade lets you fall from any height, but that’s it. All that the upgrades do is make your life easier, almost as if you’re cheating. It’s interesting really, because throughout the game, almost every upgrade made me feel as if I were cheating. And maybe I’m a sucker for pain, but once you have the ability to turn invisible for half a minute, stealth no longer has the same meaning.

The Icarus Landing Augmentation. Yes, it also makes you look EPIC

And the repetition doesn’t stop at the gameplay, it affects the aesthetic and sound as well. Most notably, and most irritatingly, the character animations during social interaction sequences repeat insufferably. I’ve seen so many characters do, what I call the ‘self throat chop’ so many times, I get angry just thinking about it. I mean, I understand that it’s difficult to animate human motions while talking, but for fucks sake could you animate more than 5 different body gestures? I’m not expecting no LA Noire but seriously, too many people use the self throat chop.

But despite the repetitive nature of the game, the mise en scene was brilliant. The moody, quiet and ambient music melded very well with the dark, gritty, sepia-toned world and characters. As far as ARPGs go, the gameplay is superb and by virtue of the fact that it even offers a stealth or nonlethal option makes the game stand out as far superior to the more or less weak and drab triple-A contenders of this year.

But Now, the Main Course: World Building

On its own, Deus Ex was very good. Now, if you add the story, and the world that DXHR is set in, you get great and amazing. The level of detail that went into building this world that Deus Ex is in is phenomenal and this is where one can notice the differences between good, great, and remarkable stories.

The Deus Ex Icarus Trailer. Really, you should just go watch it.

Before going into DXHR though, lets decipher what these differences really are. First, what makes a good story? A good story is a story that makes effective use of the story structures that everyone knows; namely exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution. This is the standard story structure that everyone knows. Now on this template, you start adding more sub-templates such as genre, setting, conflict, character, etc. etc. These are all the components of a good story. Once you fill in the blanks, with appropriate and attractive answers (like madlibs) you get a good story. And so, look at Deus Ex. You have the story structure, all set and ready to go. You have the genre, Action/Thriller, the setting, Cyberpunk future, the conflict, revenge for killing your people, the character, security guard. Even on its own, without any exposition, this looks like a good story. I could make one up right now. A security guard who lost his parents to a terrorist attack is now seeking revenge by using the cyberpunk tools given to him. Little did he know that as he figured out more about these terrorists, that the terrorist leader was actually his father. Or some such nonsense. You get the point, a good story is just effectively filling in the blanks.

So what makes a great story? The primary difference between a good and great story is creativity and innovation. In part, it’s doing your research. A great story contains depth, underlying forces, aspects that are not immediately obvious from the outset and from the blanks that have been filled. This could take the form of layered plots and overarching conflicts beyond the main character, or it could take the form of character development into unexpected and novel directions. But the difference is in this creativity and this adding upon the blanks that have been filled. DXHR does this, quite simply, with the Purity vs. Augmentation conflict that is going on beyond the scope of the main character.

And then, we have remarkable stories. The primary difference here is effort and the expansiveness of the world that is being created. Up until now, Deus Ex is little different than Ghost in the Shell and GitS did this whole thing 11 years before the first Deus Ex even came out. So really, there’s nothing new to Deus Ex and nothing novel about it. What makes DXHR remarkable is the level of detail that went into creating this entire world.

The world of DXHR is vast and deep. Scattered throughout the game are little eBooks, Newspapers, Personal emails and other tidbits of society that fleshes out the world that Deus Ex is set in. These tidbits of information don’t help in any way towards the game. They’re just there as things to read and use to learn more about the background of the world that DXHR is set in. It’s this level of detail, this amount of effort into making this detail, that sets DXHR apart.

Deus Ex Human Revolution truly is a grand example in world building. Because everything is voiced, you can walk the streets of Detroit to hear the conversations that people are having with their complaints, their worries and their funny stories. It adds a new level of depth not only to the main character, but also the world that this game is set in. Add that to the above standard gameplay and edgy atmosphere presented by the aesthetic and Deus Ex becomes a wonderful example of the realizable potential of a triple-A production.

Gameplay: 4/5
Aesthetic 4/5
Music: 4/5
Story: 5*/5

Synergy: 5/5

Overall: 90/100

Blocks That Matter: What Happens When Admiration Meets Creativity?

August 24, 2011 - Leave a Response

Hello all, I’m trying out a more casual reviewing style today with Blocks That Matter

Game: Blocks That Matter
Genre: Indie, Casual, Puzzle

Blocks That Matter is a Casual, Indie, Puzzle game by the two Frenchmen at Swing Swing Submarine. It details the story of the robotic creation of two indie game developers Alexey and Markus (referring to Alexey Pajitnov and Markus Persson, the creators of Tetris and Minecraft respectively) after they had been kidnapped. This robot, named Tetrobot, travels through the various levels by collecting and repositioning matter to get around. What this boils down to is an intelligent mixture of Minecraft, Tetris and Block Dude (the old TI-83 game).

So what does this recipe present to us? What ultimately happens is that Blocks That Matter embraces that aspect of the genre that isn’t afraid to make its puzzles difficult. The controls are, in actuality, extremely simple and all of the mechanics are covered very early in the game. Indeed, the only ability advancement that happens in the last 25 or so levels are that you get the ability to harvest more types of blocks. As a result, the learning curve, in terms of control, is almost minimal. For a puzzle game, this simplistic approach is greatly preferred  because the game should be competing with the difficulty of its puzzles, not the difficulty of its controls. I must say though, the starting control setup was incredibly awkward for me and though you can easily change your controls, I felt that this problem could have been easily remedied with some foresight.

The mechanic itself is a fairly novel idea. In Blocks That Matter, resource blocks are collected by breaking them and reintroduced to the terrain once collected, a la Minecraft. The catch is that they can only be introduced in sets of four, and only if each block is touching another when being reintroduced. As such, the blocks can only be reintroduced in Tetris shapes. When this form restriction is combined with the properties of certain resources (some blocks are affected by gravity and some aren’t, once again a la Minecraft), it makes for interesting puzzles and solutions that require some thinking out of the box. Of course, once you figure out all of this, it comes down to using the right permutation and trick at the right time.

Blocks That Matter, as a result, is a fairly standard puzzle game. It came up with an interesting and creative mechanic, has simple controls, and a strong and balanced difficulty curve. Aesthetically and musically, the game is also simplistic and even slightly repetitive. The aesthetic style definitely makes the game feel casual and approachable, as does the music and everything is instantly recognizable as one thing or another. Overall, the audio and video of the game are well done and encompasses this light and cheerful atmosphere befitting the game and its genre.

It’s not as if the story is especially well done either. Of course, seeing how the characters developed was interesting, and noticing that the two game developers had personalities befitting their genre of choice was cute, but it was just that, cute. The story is inconsequential and though it provides an objective and a goal, it’s not a goal that seems to be particularly important. All in all, the story, dialogue and narrative are strong and creative, but it doesn’t make the game stand out.

So what makes this game different? In my opinion, this game has an iteration of one of the ideal difficulty adjustment mechanisms. In most games, difficulty settings are there to impose arbitrary restraints on the player to make the game “seem” harder. More enemies, for example, is one of those arbitrary limitations.

Blocks That Matter does two things that make its difficulty adjustment very potent. The first is the fact that increased difficulty means optimizing your playstyle. Every level in Blocks That Matter contain a treasure chest and a potential star rating. The treasure chests are usually located in a location off to the side, independent of the main puzzle and are not required to finish the main story. To obtain them though, you need to manage your resources carefully so that you can still complete the level after getting the chest. The star rating is an efficiency rating. You can only get a star rating if you end the level with the appropriate number of blocks in your possession (this number being the most efficient number of remaining blocks).

The second aspect, which is closely related to the first, is that the difficulty level can be adjusted without having to manually adjust it. All it takes to choose one level of difficulty over another is to simply decide not to do something. Because the treasure chests and stars are all part of the levels, if one decides to forego these bonuses while playing that level, there is absolutely nothing to fiddle with.

All told, Blocks That Matter is an interesting game, and for $5 on Steam, it’s well worth the investment. With 40 story levels and 20 bonus levels (unlocked by completing the story with treasure chests and stars) and potentially some free updates, there are more than enough MineTetrisBlock DudeCraft puzzles to keep one occupied for at least several hours, and more if you have a completionist streak like I do. Will it leave a lasting impact on you? No. Will it force you to use your brain for entertainment? Yes. And really, isn’t that all you want from a puzzle game?

Gameplay: 3.5*/5
Aesthetic: 3.5/5
Music: 3.5/5
Story: 4/5
Synergy: 3/5

Overall: 72/100

Bastion: Action-RPGs Can Still Tell an Engrossing Story

August 19, 2011 - Leave a Response

Hello all. It’s been a while but I’ve decided I’m going to try writing for this blog again. I’m trying out a few new styles for my gaming reviews so if you have any comments or criticisms, feel free to say so.

This review is in a more traditional reviewing format and I’ll be reviewing Bastion, an XBLA game that was ported to PC on Tuesday, 8/16/2011

Game: Bastion
Genre: Indie Action-RPG
Length: 4~6 hours. 15+ for Full Completion
Price: $15 on Steam (+$5 for Soundtrack)
Overall Rating: 98/100

Developer Description
Bastion is an action role-playing experience that redefines storytelling in games, with a reactive narrator who marks your every move. Explore more than 40 lush hand-painted environments as you discover the secrets of the Calamity, a surreal catastrophe that shattered the world to pieces. Wield a huge arsenal of upgradeable weapons and battle savage beasts adapted to their new habitat. Finish the main story to unlock the New Game Plus mode and continue your journey!

Let’s get the bad news out first. In terms of gameplay, Bastion isn’t anything special. It’s a very standard Action RPG, hack-n-slash type with repeating monsters in a series of zones. As a result, if you’re not a fan of hack-n-slash games, the gameplay of Bastion won’t interest you. But, Bastion does make up for its generic gameplay with fairly frequent upgrades and weapon introductions, adding a bit of variety to the game as you run around mowing down monsters. Considering that the game is 10 hours long, the amount of variety in level design and monster types, as well as the customizability of the weapons and passive abilities is more than enough to make the fairly standard genre compelling enough to keep you on your feet throughout the whole game.

As a work of the Action RPG genre, Bastion is masterfully crafted. In terms of control, the game responds beautifully, offering no hitches in terms of bugs or glitching as the game progressed. Movement is fluid and natural, using the standard WASD or Diabloesque mouse click, as well as gamepad support. The difficulty, disregarding the fact that it’s adjustable, scales appropriately as the game progresses. Monster types become more varied, their HP and speed increases, and soon start developing special abilities just to make your life harder. For a hardened gamer though, the difficulty is on the easier side, but the addition of a Shrine where you can add a variety of special abilities to the monsters for additional XP and money makes the game sufficiently challenging.

As a whole, in terms of gameplay, Bastion is a strong example in the Action RPG genre, making up for its fairly mild genre choice with variety in terms of weapons, monster types, and terrain types. 4/5

Now we get to some of the better things I have to say about this game. Aesthetically, Bastion has three main components: the level, the background and the cutscenes. The levels in Bastion are in isometric view. If anything, this was my one problem with Bastion’s aesthetic. I understand that the isometric view gives a sense of depth that the orthogonal projection can’t achieve but it makes for a slight difficulty in moving in straight lines as the WASD keys aren’t too good at making 30° turns. Then again, I also attribute this problem to the fact that it was a port to PC from XBLA, but it still annoys me that I had to wiggle my way through narrow passageways in order not to fall. Aesthetically though, the levels were wonderful to walk through as watching the passageways build themselves or crumble underneath your feet never gets old.

The background art for each level is also very well drawn and highly immersive. Taken individually, they’re already beautiful sceneries and lush landscapes but they don’t detract from the core gameplay. The background landscapes are only noticeable when you think to notice them, but they still add their feel to the level, keeping the atmosphere of each location true to itself. The cutscenes are in a similar vein as the background art. Beautiful hand drawn stills depict every scene with vibrancy in the color palette, but crushed just enough to give that heavy feeling of a post-apocalyptic world. As a final note, the character designs are integrated very naturally with this world, making them feel natural to the aesthetic, but unnatural to the apocalypse. And if you think about it, that’s what survivors should feel like, unnatural in a post-apocalyptic world.

All in all, the aesthetic of Bastion meshes together very nicely. It’s distinct style, evoking a surreal dream, is attractive and clearly helps to define the atmosphere in the game. 5/5

Now, since the developers themselves said that Bastion redefines storytelling in games, you would expect the story to be phenomenal right? Well, the game definitely lives up to expectations.

The hero of this story is you, The Kid. You wake up to find yourself floating on a rock in the middle of nowhere. You go around a bit, find your old weapons, and arrive at The Bastion, a floating fortress with an old man that tells you to help him build this fortress up and make it fully functional. As you travel around, helping to build this structure, you find a variety of equipment to help you on your task.

It’s a fairly typical RPG start, and not many games can avoid using this start to a game. The real meat of the story is presented in the exploration of the world around you. Even though this is a story about you, the protagonist, it’s even more a story about the world you live in. It’s a story about the people who disappeared and the civilization that once was. But all the while, you’re exploring this strange new world that emerged from the Calamity.

Ultimately, the story is centered around choice. The customization available to you being only a small portion of that. You follow a linear main story, yes, but you have a huge arsenal of methods of approaching. Each weapon plays a  little bit differently, each passive ability helpful in different ways, each difficulty adjustment deadly in different ways. So, in true western RPG form, you can fully imbue yourself and your play style in to the protagonist.

The emotional progression in the game is also deep and engrossing. From the crushing solitude of a post-apocalyptic world to the sense of joy upon meeting survivors to the immense sadness of seeing the old world so destroyed, with all its people gone, the emotional impact that this game has stays with you. 5/5

I left the best part for last I feel. There are two aspects to the audio in this game. The first is the music itself. As if to fully explore the idea of a post-modern frontiersman, the music is a combination of electronic drum and bass, acoustic Western, and Eastern Asian traditional (developers call it acoustic frontier trip-hop). The mark of good music is when it blends naturally with the setting and the atmosphere that’s been presented, and Bastion has good music.  The eclectic musical choice is what gives the game such a strong support. The strong drum and bass beats which come up during combat and heavier locales is contrasted by the calm folksy Western style of an acoustic guitar in the Bastion. The occasional vocal tracks that act as the main themes for the supporting characters are also refreshingly calm and entrancing, giving light to the sadness of the Calamity. As musical integration goes, Bastion’s music fully supports and enhances the game both aesthetically and functionally.

The second aspect of the audio, and the most lauded aspect of the game I feel, is the voice acting. The voice acting of Bastion is what ties this game together into a masterpiece. Throughout the game, there is one narrator, with a ‘disturbingly sexy voice,’ that tells the story as you progress through the game, while also narrating your actions in real time. His role in the entire game is monumental and it is through this adaptive narrative that the story is told. The inclusion of this narrator is what truly separates this game from the others of the same genre. Without this narrator, it would be impossible to have such an overarching and descriptive story, which in turn deteriorates from the game, pushing it into the corner as yet another ARPG. In effect, this narrator is what keeps everything in context and pushes you along as you progress through the game. Of course, it’s an added bonus when he says something different whenever you do something in the game, never repeating a line throughout the entire experience. 5*/5

Synergy: 5/5

Overall: 98/100
Bastion is a 4~6 hour game that can play for up to 15 or more hours if you aim for full completion. It’s $15 on Steam, with the soundtrack up for $10 ($5 now because it’s on sale). Though it’s a traditional ARPG, the amount of varied content makes up for the mild genre choice especially given that the variety is throughout such a short time. The story, aesthetic and audio of the piece synergize wonderfully, accentuating the emotions and atmospheres accordingly and adding humor and wit to a serious and compelling story.

Grim Oceanus

Black and White: Good or Evil?

April 9, 2010 - Leave a Response

I recently got in touch with my inner ego and decided to pick up a copy of Black and White to play for a while. Of course, the newer Black and White 2 is long since out but I’ll stick with the original for now. For those of you who don’t know, Black and White is a GOD game. Not in the sense of having godly powers that destroy worlds but in the sense that you are, literally, a new god that has come down to the world and is ready to get some worshiping started towards you. You have some godly powers, such as being go anywhere and pick up almost anything and perform Miracles. These miracles can be one shots found in the environment or generated by mini miracle dispensers or even those that are powered from the worship of your believers at your temple. The other perk with being a god is your Creature, but I’ll talk about this one later.

The real meat of the game though, comes not from just having this godly power (obviously) but from the occasions you use them for. You are, obviously, a newly created god. You need worshipers because any god without believers is dead. So here’s the deal. How do you get these worshipers? That’s where this game gets interesting. Because the whole point of the game is to get worshipers, and therefore influence, you need to awe the people in your land for them to start believing you. You can do good or evil, heal or kill, but either way, the belief in you will increase. Of course, doing either will push you in the direction of one or the other which is shown by a slow but sure change in your appearance as well as in your temple and the sky.

And then there is your Creature. The game developers must have realized that giving you absolute power over everything might be a bad idea. That’s why you can’t pick up rocks that are too big and why you can’t rain fire upon all your enemies outside of your influence. But your Creature is a different story. Your Creature is your immortal pet of awesomeness. At least, when it grows up it is. A large portion of the game is dedicated to making your Creature into something useful. It can learn miracles and do almost everything that you can do (for some reason it doesn’t like to appoint jobs to the villagers apart from “Breeder”) except both inside and OUTSIDE OF YOUR INFLUENCE.

So Black and White is a god game with a mix of village management and creature breeding. The question then, is if it’s a good game. What’s interesting about Black and White is that it’s a game that offers very little direct control in a lot of the environments. The only way to train your Creature, for example, is through communicating by smacking it across the face or rubbing its tummy. You have very little influence over enemy villagers and a bit more, but not nearly enough influence on the efficiency of your own. Enemy Creatures can’t even be touched except with a well placed fireball or lightning bolt and when that happens, your Creature is usually killed by the enemy God.

So how could it be a good game? What makes this game so hard to control and steer is also, in my opinion, what makes it a great game. Through its indirect control of the environment, it forces the player to strategize in novel ways. A smack across your Creature’s cheeks could cause a very big behavior pattern change to be engraved in it, for example. Or you could start planning on how to take over enemy villages by teaching your Creature certain miracles that would especially impress other villages. Another aspect of the indirect control is that the feeling of accomplishment is much more accentuated when something happens the way you want it to. The feeling that you get when you finally take an enemy village or when you lead your creature into battle and taste that sweet first victory. The proud feeling of seeing your creature all grown up and ready to rumble, tall as a mountain and bigger than even the monstrosity that is your temple.

Black and White is a game that takes a million different genres into one. You have the core Real Time Strategy, involving the micro and macro-management of your village, the Role Playing element of being a God, of acting in a certain alignment to make people believe you, and the Creature Breeder aspect, making your very own demigod to engage in battle with the enemy forces. What makes the game amazing though is the lack of direct control involved, the fact that there is no GOD MODE because, well, you’re already a god.

Assassins Creed 2: Eagle’s Flight

December 12, 2009 - One Response

I’ve decided not to play through the game, but rather just base this one off of my experience watching the game being played.

Assassins Creed 1 was a gimmick. Assassins Creed 2 is a game. Remember all the good things I mentioned about Assassins Creed 1? Free running, free roaming, free killing. Assassins Creed 2 took these ideas, these undeveloped gimmicks in AC1 and made a game out of it. Improvements were made, linearity and repetition is hidden, cut scenes are now mobile and active. What is interesting is that gameplay is still similar. There is progress from investigation to assassination. And there are few types of investigation. Interrogation, Race, and Tailing are a few of the examples. What makes this game different, and far more endearing, is the method in which the game delivers its content.

Which brings me to the main point of this review – Storyline. The major factor that made Assassins Creed 2 so much more engrossing and entertaining was the storyline. What most game developers don’t understand is that the writing in the game, especially for RPGs, is at least as important as the gameplay itself. Story puts the game in focus. Games aren’t just about the original thinking that was involved behind the mechanic, nor is it about the fluidity of the physics engine or the beauty of the graphics. These are extremely important for a high quality game, but games with a simple mechanic, basic physics engine, and low quality graphics but good story can easily be better than a game with high quality graphics and physics but no story.

For example, we can take a look at a cult classic for anyone who has touched an N64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. In the light of modern gaming, Ocarina of Time has a basic gameplay mechanic (you have various items and swing your sword), a simple physics engine, and mediocre to low quality graphics. You go around collecting various upgrades to improve your stamina in battle, and to get these items, you go through various dungeons. All of these are, in part, what compels us to play this game. But the main factor, the tipping point for this game, is the story. It’s the tale of a young boy who, brought to a forest of elves, grows into the Hero of Time to save not only the Princess Zelda, but also the entire land of Hyrule. Yes, the story is corny. Yes, the story is overdone and easy to predict. But it’s still a compelling story. It’s this story that gives you a goal, that focuses you on your goal and that allows you to relate to your character. It’s this story that makes you want to get all the tokens in all the temples, that make you feel sad to know that some of these characters are dead.

The power of story is also shown, quite clearly, in the Final Fantasy series. Almost all, if not all, of the final fantasy games have turn based battle systems. This simple gameplay mechanic, added to some variants on magic use and skills, is the singularity of all the FF games. The Fire, Fira, Firaga sets of magic, the white and black mages, the fighter. All of these components of Final Fantasy are universal in all their games. Then, what is it that makes this game so popular to have created 13 separate games? Once again, there is the story behind it. The story, even though highly repetitious, is what brings home the gameplay.

What story does to a game, is it delivers the gameplay to the gamer. It’s the goals that the story provides that motivate you to find new items and kill new targets. It’s the directions that the story points you in that keep you focused on your goal. It’s the dialogue that keeps you entertained and the dialogue that keeps you thinking. The story is what gives you the feeling of accomplishment when you complete a particularly hard objective, and the story is what gives you the hint to help you on your way. Without a story, a game is nothing more than a gimmick, an idea. For Assassins Creed 1, this was the case. There was no coherent story, no correlation between story and gameplay. This is why there was so much repetition and tiresome chores. In Assassins Creed 2, everything comes into perspective. Every action you take is done for a specific short term goal. Human nature is one to enjoy instant gratification. You don’t feel the need to do all these investigation missions if none of them matter. But if, say, you were doing these side quests in order to win a prize at a carnival? That allowed you access to your targets main quarters? That is motivation.

The other reason that story is so important, that is almost abused in the case of Assassins Creed, is anticipation. AC1 and AC2 left off with, in my opinion, come of the gaming world’s most annoying cliffhangers. AC2 is a bit better than AC1 because of the glyphs but nonetheless is an extreme pain. And that is what a good story can do. AC2, for all the fans of AC1, was an immediate purchase. Everyone who had played it would replay the ending, and everyone who hadn’t, would play AC1. By putting Assassins Creed as a trilogy, Ubisoft generated a market of gamers that would purchase all three games if they met even a mediocre standard.

Assassins Creed 2 is, for me, an example of a very well learnt lesson for Ubisoft. Whether or not they developed the first one with the faulty story in mind, it is obvious that they definitely learned how to utilize a storyline for the second game. Everything is coherent and relevant, and the glyphs, especially the glyphs at the end, are enough to leave this game in mind for a good amount of time.

The Optimal Play

December 4, 2009 - 3 Responses

Ok, so the other day I was playing a 5 player game of Settlers with a few friends. The game got unusually close and heated toward the end, with a 9-6-6-6-6 score. We’ll call the player with 9 points “Alex.” I was sadly one of the sixers tied for second. Alex had just taken Longest Road, which catapulted him from a safe 7 to an unsettling 9 (10 points wins the game). The general consensus was that Alex had the game on his next turn if he was allowed to keep Longest Road. Unfortunately for us, he held the Longest Road by a large margin and we determined that none of us could overcome it alone. After some discussion and plotting, however, we determined that if we all pooled our resources we could grant one of us enough to steal Longest Road (turning the score into 8-7-6-6-6). Alex’s turn had just ended. What would you do?

This is a troubling situation from every player’s perspective. Alex realizes that his best chance at victory lies in us doing nothing. And although we recognize that Alex will likely win if we don’t act, we also recognize that whoever we grant the resources to will be given an enormous advantage and will likely win themselves. This outcome is no better than Alex winning. So what is the optimum play here?

Let’s define what an “optimum play” is (which was what the ensuing argument at our game table was about). Two definitions were considered in the argument: “the play that garners the individual player the greatest chance of victory” (my definition), and “the play that creates the most ‘fun’ and generally minimizes the use of any douchebaggery.” These definitions are each very difficult to assess. How can you measure how an option effects your chance at victory? How can you measure how much fun is generated from your actions? I’ve come to expect that all players in a game should always act in a way that optimizes their odds of victory, but what does “victory” mean?

Let’s switch gears and consider a simple analogous 3 player free for all Starcraft game. Really any multiplayer FFA strategy game will do for this analogy. Player 1 is currently winning, player 2 has about 70% the strength of player 1, and player 3 has about 40% the strength of player 1. Without cooperation players 2 and 3 are essentially doomed, but if they work together they are 10% stronger than player 1. Player 2 should want cooperation the most, as he stands the best chance to come in first once player 1 is eliminated. Now player 3 has little chance at first place, but can choose between second and third (second if he cooperates, third if he doesn’t). The question then is “what is the difference in value that player 3 puts on getting second versus third?” Interestingly, I contend this depends on the particular game and player. In Starcraft, I personally would much rather be second than third. In Settlers, I personally value all non-first places to be about equal (if you’re not first, you’re last).

If the last place players place significantly different values on non-first positions, then we can expect them to behave in a way that maximizes their odds of attaining the highest place they can whereas if they care only for first place they will behave in a way that maximizes their odds of attaining first place. If our Starcraft player 3 cares about non-first positions, then their behavior is easy to predict: they will cooperate with player 2. If they only care about first place, they will behave much more erratically. They might give up hope and just cripple a player based on personal vendettas, they might ally themselves with player 1 and backstab them when they’re weak, they might do the same to player 2 in a desperate attempt at first place. In reality, a player probably experiences some mix of these two victory perspectives, but the mix is probably more or less unique to the specific game and player.

Now that we have defined “victory” I will invoke a concept from basic economics and claim that any “rational” player will act in a way that optimizes their odds of victory. Sure, they could do otherwise. I’ve played with players who get bored of a game and decide to help the winning player just so the game ends faster. I’ve played with players who simply don’t understand the game and make nonsense moves. I’ve played with players who just like “the pretty colors” and make their moves purely on whims. These actions, however, are not rational in the context of the game. In a 6 player game of Monopoly all players could elect to sign over all property and money to a single player and end the game instantly (which in all fairness would probably be the best way to go about playing that horrid game), but do you consider this a “game of Monopoly?” Certainly not. Any reasonable game requires a push and pull of opposing wills struggling for their individual victory. Without that you simply have madness.

So finally, optimal play: “the play that garners the individual player the greatest chance of victory.”

Ok, let’s come full circle to our Settler’s game. If we assume that the players put a reasonable amount of value in non-first positions then we can assume that they would not cooperate to dethrone first place. Why? Because the score would then be 8-7-6-6-6 and dooms the majority to third place or worse. If Alex was allowed to win, then the remaining players (6-6-6-6) would each have a much better shot at second place.

But this was not the case. Apparently, we place high value on first place and very little on even second place in Settler’s. We all conspired to grant one of us (myself as it turned out) nearly every resource available on the table in order to outbuild Alex. This is of course the expected outcome, because if Alex is allowed to take first then it definitively denies it to all other players. Even by widening the 1 point victory gap to 2 points, the majority gives itself just a little more breathing room to get to first.

Sadly we’ll never know how the game would have ended. Everyone felt extremely unhappy about this massive exploitation of the rules and we all gave up after the decision was reached. It’s unfortunate that the nature of the game induced this kind of behavior. An optimal play should never produce such a massive feeling of “brokenness.” This is a failing on the design of the game, and surprisingly I’ve seen this happen many times during my Settler’s career. Tip for game designers: don’t encourage massive acts of collusion. It just makes us upset.

Assassins Creed: An Eaglet Born

December 4, 2009 - Leave a Response

These past few weeks has brought on a stream of great new games for our eager community. Call of Duty, Left 4 Dead 2, Dragon Age Origins and Assassins Creed 2 are all notably high powered examples for the within-a-week-or-two-of-November-17th release date. My attention is a bit more focused on two of these releases, specifically the ones with 2 in them. Yes. That’s right. L4D2  and Assassins Creed 2 (or as Yahtzee puts it, AssCreed 2). But before we get into reviewing L4D2 (as Dan will do sometime in the future), or AssCreed 2, we take a look at the originals, the games that promoted the name enough to warrant a sequel. Since Dan took L4D, I’m taking up Assassins Creed.

I’m going to get to my point early for this one. Assassins Creed is, at best, a gimmick. It’s an idea mixed with a physics engine and slightly salted with the beginnings of a storyline. It’s Ubisoft’s desire to recreate their success with the Prince of Persia series so they took what made Prince of Persia fun – running across walls, on rooftops, and killing things – and refined it. Add that to currently popular notions of sandbox worlds where everything within the capabilities of the game is permitted, and the idea that you’re a badass assassin who can shank things with ease and you have AssCreed 1. They even took the Prince of Persia gig where dying is no longer dying but desynchronizing, and all that happens is that you probably have to watch some unskippable cutscene again.

I’m not saying that any of this is bad really. Free running, free roaming, free killing is still a bunch of fun and games as you do extravagant jumps across buildings, miss a ledge and grab a window just in time. It’s great to be able to run around town and just pick off all the archers with throwing knives as you leap into the air and stab a templar through the throat with a blade that springs from your ring finger. It’s epic when you’re surrounded by city guards and you kill them off one by one with flashy counter kills. The idea is great. It’s fun, exhilarating, and cool to watch. The problem is that it takes 10~15 hours tops to beat.

No, I don’t mean only 10~15 hours. I mean a grueling 10~15 hours. The reason Assassins Creed is a gimmick instead of a game is because Ubisoft landed themselves with this great idea. They built the mechanics and the physics engine for it. They even incorporated a storyline. But they forgot to add the flair, the diversity.

You are Altair, a masterful assassin who is bested by no other. If life was the disease, you are the cure. And what do you do? You’re running around, doing chores. The game is composed of 9 assassination missions total, and one final boss fight. There are 3 major cities. Each city has 3 districts. Each district has some 8~10 viewpoints, 8~10 civilians to save and 6 information gathering missions. There are 8 types of information gathering missions. Do you begin to understand why its grueling?

To initiate each assassination, you have to do at least three of the six investigation missions. For those of you interested in the story, or in completion, you do all six, save all civilians and climb all the viewpoints. The point with this game, is that it can be done in 3 hours or 3 days. Ubisoft never understood that planning the route, creeping in, and stealth assassinating the target was this game’s main point. Of every hour spent on this game, a good 40 minutes is spent doing menial side quests, saving civilians, punching gypsies and retards in the face and running from guards. Of course, there are also the flags, but let’s face it, no one really gives a damn about 100% completion.

What Assassins Creed does, is it opens up another market of gaming. It breaks the mold of traditional games, not like Braid or N+ does, but to a similar effect. It started the distillation process of good games and new ideas and shows you that new things can be done even with popular things. It attempts to make things work. Of course, they failed a bit on the execution but nonetheless, an attempt was made. I’ll review Assassins Creed 2 soon after I spend the 20 hours beating the game myself (instead of watching a friend play it).

Virtual Reality: A Commentary on Simulation Games

November 24, 2009 - Leave a Response

Hello Everyone!

My name is Peien and I’m currently a senior E.E. major at Northwestern University. Like my colleagues, I’ll be contributing to this blog, but with a twist. Like Dan and Rudy, I often enjoy playing RTS’s and other games with hard-core strategies, but my true passion lies within the realm of simulation video games.

If we all think long and hard about why we play video games, we inevitably all reach the same conclusion: we play because we want an escape from reality. In the real-world, it is impossible for you to engage in magic, kill 250 zombies in a span of 15 minutes, or save a princess from a reptilian megalomaniac. But the genre of simulation video games has a different spin on the ‘escapism’ ideal behind video games. Games like Gran Turismo and Microsoft Flight Simulator aren’t designed around fantasylands. They seek to allow the average person to be placed in scenarios that comparatively few around the world have experienced while keeping realism at the center of game design.

Before I continue, I should define what I mean by a simulation video game. By this I mean games that stick as close as possible to reality and don’t trade realistic dynamics for easy gameplay. I also am not referring to games like SimCity and Roller Coaster Tycoon (although they tend to be lumped in the simulation category at Fry’s and Best Buy, I refer to these games as management games). As such, focus on America’s Army rather than Call of Duty, Gran Turismo rather than Need For Speed: Underground, and IL-2 Sturmovik rather than Ace Combat. These simulation-lite games, as I like to call them, are great fun, but really lack what I’m looking for.

When it comes to true simulation games, the realism of the physics are just important as the realism of the graphics. For example, in the WWII combat flight simulator IL-2 Sturmovik, a Mk. I Hawker Hurricane will have its engine stall out when you pull into too steep of a dive. This accurately reflects the primitive fuel delivery technologies of the 1930’s (when the Hurricane was developed) and adds an additional challenge to the game. When I’m driving a mid-engined Ferrari in Gran Turismo 5 Prologue, if I lift off the gas pedal in the corners, I experience snap oversteer and will spin if I don’t correct it. This is in stark contrast to other driving games where all the car models are extremely forgiving and a mistake won’t cost you the race. As such, simulation games give me a thrill because I am able to experience flying an F-104 Starfighter or driving a Ford GT at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca as if I could do them in real life.

Of course, there are limitations to how far simulations can go and even with the best graphics and the best physics engine, you are often limited by the gaming accessories that you own. For example, Forza Motorsport 3 is supposed to be one of the most realistic driving sims out there, but given that the only two control options are the XBox 360 controller or the XBox wheel (which has a limited steering range and terrible pedals) you aren’t able to really reap the fruits of the programmers’ hard work. Indeed feedback and immersiveness are integral parts to a simulation game’s success. Gran Turismo 5 became so much more enjoyable after I played it with a Logitech G25 steering wheel (it has a full facsimile manual transmission and a force feedback 900-degree steering wheel). IL-2 Sturmovik is pretty much unplayable for me unless I have my TrackIR 4 head-tracking unit (a device that you mount to a baseball cap which tracks your head movements and, correspondingly, moves your view around the virtual cockpit).

Unfortunately as of the writing of this piece, Microsoft Flight Simulator has been terminated by Microsoft due to low revenue and most racing games have gone the way of the ‘customizing’ route (e.g.: Need for Speed). Here’s hoping that  other companies will pick up the torch from Microsoft and EA, making new and improved simulation games. With skyrocketing insurance rates and gas prices, I believe that demand for simulation games will increase as people strive to escape from moving about in boring Toyota Priuses and Airbus A320’s into a virtual world filled with Aston Martin DB9’s and Lockheed F-22’s.

Left 4 Dead: Compelling Co-op

November 12, 2009 - Leave a Response

On the eve of the release of the sequel to one of my favorite FPS’s of all time, Left 4 Dead, I would like to explore what I believe to be its greatest design strength: its implementation of the classic co-operative mode (one would hope this is its greatest strength, as the whole game is really just one massive co-op romp).

For this analysis, we’ll assume that the players are playing on a difficulty commensurate with their ability (one very good player can more or less solo a campaign on easy mode). Under this assumption, it’s safe to say this game is very hard. This can be a frequently overlooked design choice in a game, but its difficulty is very central to how it appeals to its audience. Make the game too easy, and its boring; make it too hard and you risk frustrating your players. Most games get around the “too easy” problem by adding additional difficulty levels, but the “too hard” problem is a bit more delicate. Hardcore players will strive to beat the game on the hardest difficulty, and accordingly it should be just difficult enough to provide them with an extreme challenge while still being possible to defeat.

Left 4 Dead does an exceptional job of balancing these difficulty levels (often with the help of the AI Director, who makes subtle tweaks to the difficulty based on the players’ performance). The most important effect of this extreme difficulty is it requires the players to work together seamlessly. Even one weak link in the group will bring down the entire party. This is of course a blessing and a curse. For just as it is extraordinarily fulfilling to work together like a well oiled machine, it’s equally irritating to fail time after time due to a less experienced teammate.

One of the annoying problems with many co-op games is that players tend to compete viciously for items and weapons. This rivalry often turns into a meta-game within itself to see who can collect the best stuff, and therefore make the most progress toward the objective (kill the most bad guys, etc.). This does not foster a team mentality and usually detracts from a co-op experience. Fortunately, weapons in L4D are infinite. If everyone wants the shotgun, they can all pick up an instance of the shotgun. Granted, this detracts from the realism, but the benefit in gameplay more than makes up for that. The items that players can get a bit greedy with are the finite health items (med packs or pills) but the player greed here is offset by their will to beat the level. If myself and my terribly wounded partner are the last two remaining in the party, and I’ve been hoarding the last med pack, I’m very willing to give it up because I realize that without him I have no chance of survival. Which brings me to my next point: the dangers of going it alone.

Anyone familiar with the game has come to this unfortunate revelation early in their career: if you’re alone you’re as good as dead. The special zombies have been carefully tailored to wreak the most havoc on lone individuals. The hunter will pin your helpless body down until your dead. The smoker will do the same thing to a loner, but has the added advantage of being able to easily pick off stragglers as well. The boomer, while a bit more complex in that it doesnt explicitly incapacitate the players, makes it extremely difficult for a loner to defend themselves. These foes are designed especially to keep the party tight and working together (if by no other way than natural selection). This ensures that the party doesn’t develop that oh too common hurried leader that runs ahead and kills everything before anyone else gets to have any fun. That guy’s dead outta the starting gate.

One fun twist in the game theory behind surviving the level is that only one person needs to survive for the party to advance to the next level. There comes a point in the game, when the safe room is in sight, when suddenly chaos breaks out and it’s every man for himself. Inevitably, some players will be left for dead (I couldn’t resist). This is often the most tense and usually hilarious segment of the level, when the alliances all suddenly crumble in favor of individual survival. While those left for dead can sometimes feel abandoned and bitter over this, the game leaves them some comfort in knowing that only one of them needs to make it and that they gave their life for the good of the team.

All in all, L4D is truly a model of a well thought out cooperative game. Sure its got its quirks, and player skill can often influence how fun the game is, but its not too hard to get good at (as far as FPS’s go) and has incredible replay value. Way to go Valve! And I anxiously await L4D2 (or, as I was hoping it would be called, L5D).