I wonder if GOG.com will ever spit this out, too…
And for the classical lovers…
Finally back from being in Hong Kong! Essays to come.
A Spreadsheet in Game’s Clothing
I have been lost in a maze of FAQ’s and guides, forums and wiki’s, reading every scrap of tips and tricks I can for some of Paradox’s main titles. I had bought and played Crusader Kings II and Europa Universalis III almost 1.5 years ago and had, in my failings to make much sense of them, put them down. With the release of Europa Universalis IV, I find myself entranced by the new user interface and other additional upgrades. Being in transit, however, with a laptop that is hardly as powerful as my PC, I find myself reverting back to classics.
My obsession leads me to other strategy games the likes of Masters of Orion 1 and 2, Civilization IV and V, Endless Space, Democracy 3, and so on. My interests collect over all the games I once failed to conquer, and I think to Football Manager. I once bought, and played version 2012 and I told myself, especially by the poor user reviews on Metacritic, I wasn’t going to cave in to version 2014. In fact, I wanted to buy 2013, but SI/Sega are rather good at clearing away the other Football Manager titles to make room for the new ones, and so 2012 and 2013 are lost to the servers of Steam and elsewhere as new purchases. I love watching football, but I’ve never quite understood the sport as much as my friends do, and with a desire to learn by doing, I load up Football Manager 2014. 2014 seems to have some bugs with the tutorial on Max OS X, so I switch back to 2012 (hey, if they have Neymar, I’m happy). As I watch the tutorials, it dawns on me—I’m going to be playing a spreadsheet for the next few hours. From transfers and contract negotiations, team tactics, and, if one so desires, even the match, the spreadsheet aesthetic is not to be spared.
For several hours I set up my tactics, main squad, decide to bid on one or two players, get into some negotiations, watch other coach’s getting hired and players getting signed and realize I’ve only passed five days of game time and my match is in a day–I decide to move onto to something else.
Paradox titles have numbers tucked everywhere, from the tax modifiers your lands provide to the reputation you hold, the prestige you possess and relations you maintain, your quantity and quality of alliances as well as quantity and quality of enemy military and economic conditions. The numbers never seem to cease, and it is a ‘strategy’ game in the most classic sense because of this, involving careful deliberation and contemplation every step of the way. Nay, don’t be fooled by how real-time a Paradox title may be; if it could be a turn-based game, it would, but I venture to think most would probably shoot themselves in hopes of reaching the end of a game.
So where to put all these numbers? My initial examples will stem from Paradox titles. Like any great design challenge, the goal is to simplify; to take a seemingly complex and sometimes quantitatively massive amount of data and present it to the viewer/user in a way that is both comprehensible and easy to remember. Breaking things down into chunk sizes is a great primary step as the human memory can only retain so much information at once. Secondarily, providing resources, i.e. tools, to the user to simplify information in several ways also helps manage complexity, organizing information to maintain each categories integrity. The maps of Paradox games and their modes are fantastic means of expressing this ingenuity.
Terrain mode reveals topographical changes, hills and valleys, plateaus and deserts, but one won’t get much information from this map mode and will probably spend more time in modes like the country or trade map modes where one type—in a few cases, more—of information will shape and color the landscape. When you re-envision information, you can additionally make the information intriguing to explore, and in games this is pivotal.
Another example of this would be Democracy 3 and how, even though many dispute its claims as being one of the most complicated political games of our time due to it’s seeming biases and mercy on the player, many are drawn to the game for it’s somewhat elegant representation of data; the collection of buttons clearly representing, iconographically, their intended changes and the flow charts that simulate, with a color coded touch, the effects of said changes on populations under the political system you pull levers for.
Ultimately, a good strategy game can crumble in a player’s hand if the UI is poorly done. You want a UX design to take the mundane and elevate it to pure, easy to digest, and tasty information. For games, this consumption of information should also be a process of discovery. When information is king, you have to treat it for the character it is, full of life, personality, and meaning.
From GOG.com 1/6/14 - 666
Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup
Per my post on Desktop Dungeons, I found the game was heavily influenced by roguelike Linley’s Dungeon Crawl and it’s offshoot Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup. Growing up with my brother being a big NetHack fan I was happy to give it a try. One sentiment in particular is that users of the text editor Vim will be at home with the Vi styled keyboard-centric controls (if one wants to use a mouse or a numeric keypad, that’s an option, too.)
I’ve only give about two hours of playtime into the game but it’s certainly well organized; controls are mnemonically easy to remember: d for drop, c for chop, q for quaff, e for eat, and so on. Battles is simplified by merely moving towards the enemy—each movement passes time which allows other creatures to move/attack, you to recover from attacks you have made, escape if you are quick enough, or in non-combat scenarios movement will determine your hunger degeneration and health and mana regeneration.
Although the spells and god power access isn’t as quick and rapid as general combat and other keyboard shortcuts—for example, one could memorize a solitary spell for rapid recall, but other spells and power’s have to be individually accessed by calling up their inventory of spells/powers. Conversely, keeping the access down to under two-to-three key presses is really appreciated.
The added complexity of various spells and loot, the god praising system, ranged weaponry, and hunger requirements really puts Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup a few pegs higher than my other favorite, Sword of Fargoal. While Sword of Fargoal excels in it’s simplicity—even more so when combined with a mobile touchscreen system of movement and attacking—Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup matches in steady measure and provides a bit more reward for the required attention. Other major differences are the auto-explore system in Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, which stops on it’s on when entering dangerous environments, unlike the constant trudging around the maps of Sword of Fargoal to find more monster spawns to grind XP to feel safe enough to venture on. Additionally, while Sword of Fargoal can be a far greater challenge for it’s lack of a ‘rest’ command, this was probably left up to it’s explore-to-regenerate process due to the fact that Sword of Fargoal isn’t really a turn-based game, taking it’s movement and battles up in ‘realtime’.
On the other hand, Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup’s procedurally generated maps can sometimes be a bit odd with doors that lead seemingly to nowhere or the occasional patch of terrain that is inaccessible but this isn’t to say that the game is crippled with an inability to find exits but is purely a small quirk that leads one a bit astray from the fantasy of the game. That said, roguelikes aren’t often cited for their atmospheres, and in a game like Desktop Dungeons which, as mentioned before, has a bit of a puzzler aura to it, the sometimes weirdly generated maps don’t always feel out of place.
If you’re into roguelikes or interested in trying one that has a bit more graphical flair than the stereotyped console roguelikes of yore (Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup has a console version, too, for those who like to rock without video cards or merely prefer staring at ASCII all day) then you can download a binary over at their site.
Top Pick for 2013
Belated by about two days, my top pick for 2013 as ‘Game Of The Year’, at least in the Indie Category, would have to be Desktop Dungeons. Albeit not released in 2013, the project started back in 2010, and was initially free. Spanning the gap from HTML to standalone desktop application and coming to Steam November 2013, this witty, puzzle roguelike has really charmed the pants off me.
In Desktop Dungeons enemies don’t move at all. Every enemy stays in a particular place and your rather frugal set of movements and actions determines if you will succeed or fail your one-level adventure. Sometimes there are extra ‘levels’ with random side quests one can choose to partake in, but as far as side quests go are not crucial and more often than not a player will find him/herself taking very cautious steps towards the final goal of each level: defeating the final level-ten boss.
Fights work in a simple point system format; you have health, mana, and base attack, all which culminate to your fighting prowess. Furthermore, by hovering your mouse over an enemy, you can see how many attacks it will take for either you and the creature to fall, what stats and buffs/debuffs they have, and if you’re next move is ‘safe’, will lead you to ‘death’, or result in a ‘win’ making the whole process of choosing your enemies swift and simple with a small bit of judgement rather than a more gross, taxing system of numbers and calculations. As you traverse the dungeon of your choosing, clearing parts of the fog of war will heal mana and health, and as you pick up items you can choose to use them or ‘convert’ them for points which, depending on your race, gain you certain points every X amount of conversion points you score. Your class can grant you certain benefits against specific monsters as well. As you complete dungeons, you’ll meet and gain the assistant of certain races, classes, and unlock other dungeons to explore which occupy your adventuring and kingdom screens in the form of little patches of land and various buildings/settlements.
What makes Desktop Dungeons such a treat to play is the fact that it never crosses into the boundaries of a frustrating experience. When you fail a dungeon, it’s such a throwaway journey and so easy to restart or reconfigure your starting conditions, and you end up learning so much from each failure, that you gain an ever increasing interest to succeed. Additionally, like other RPGs, sometimes being smart about choosing your race, class, and starting equipment can really make or break your victory.
I say that Desktop Dungeons is more like a puzzler in the sense of how gameplay progresses. Since you are the only moving piece in the dungeon, you can take your time selecting your next movements or actions, and if one takes the time to deluge in the puzzles (even the mere tutorials) that have very set ways of finishing, one can learn a lot about how to finish the more ‘free-form’ dungeons that make up the main meat of the game.
Coin Crypt and Neo-Roguelikes
From the elegantly crafted Sword of Fargoal to the poorly designed (and rather plain) Hack, Slash, Loot, roguelikes can be an interesting challenge pivoting around the column of permadeath. Hack, Slash, Loot fails mostly from it’s inability to grant experience to players, robbing players of their sense of accomplishment. It’s not enough to simply keep traversing the light and dark blue shaded tiles from room to room to feel rewarded. On the other hand, hunting for tunnels on the level you’re on to grind more experience to better prepare yourself or back track up a staircase or a rope to someplace ‘safer’ for a bit, constantly being judicious about your usage of scrolls and potions, wary of both locked and unlocked chests, and all the while making your way towards the final levels really adds the biggest punch to how ultimately rewarding an experience that is Sword of Fargoal is.
Enter Dungeons of Dredmore, offering some of the zaniest collections of skill trees and character types (ever want to be an emomancer?), witty enemy taunts, and crafting and loot systems around for modern day rogelikes. These major updates to the roguelike structure really give Dungeons of Dredmore it’s largest appeal.
Albeit the added complexity is what makes Dungeons of Dredmore stand out on it’s own but if I’m is to think of the simplification of the dungeon crawling experience, it would bring to mind first and foremost the rather renowned card game Munchkin. Munchkin rather eloquently took the dungeon crawling experience into a simple number game—get the highest level first—and both by luck of draw and cooperation, or subterfuge, in a multiplayer context one could climb swiftly or be stuck suppressed by one’s competitors, or worse by luck!
In the video game world, games like Coin Crypt also simplify the dungeon crawling experience, turning the process of fighting and collecting coins to a one-good affair. As a “Lootmancer” coins you collect either in battle or from chests effect what you can later use to fight with (either to defend, heal, or protect yourself). What coins you decide to keep—and furthermore to fight with—also determine, to a lesser means of putting it, your ‘level’. Knowing when to buy perks, find goods, and play to your classes advantages all play in part as coins become the most valuable commodity across each level, especially when monsters start getting stronger.
This makes up for the absence of an experience system but also adds another twist. When you’re out of all your coins it’s game over. Alike any good challenging roguelike, there is no save game function, but unlike Sword of Fargoal there’s no temporary save (at least currently). That and the fact that there is currently no supported pause function are the only two detriments I can attribute to this game.
Not to discredit Legend of Dungeon and Dungeon of the Endless, however. As I’m currently migrating from the US to Australia I don’t have my PC running, but I will be outlining my sentiments on the two in the coming months when I do get more time to spend with them. In the meantime, Coin Crypt is a worthy investment for some fun dungeon crawling and it’ll be interesting to see what the developers decide to implement in the coming cycles.
The Perils of Early Access
I can’t seem to be unhinged from the thought that Early Access games are a bad idea. It seems as though people do support Steam’s greenlight project by voting, and that people are paying into these “projects”, but like what Robert Briscoe said in an interview in October…
The problem with Early Access is that you’re giving players who are eager to play your game this not-ideal experience to take away with them. You can slap ‘beta’ and ‘unfinished’ all over it but, at the end of the day, if it’s really buggy and not a good experience, people are going to go away thinking: ‘It’s shit. It’s not what I expected.’ There’s such a small window if you’re an indie to go out there and make your sales. For us it was the first month we had [Dear Esther] out, and by the end of that we were on drip-feed until the sales. That’s when people form an opinion and talk about it.
As gamers, why should we consider giving an incomplete game our undivided attention when it’s in our interests to explore more furnished, polished games from start to finish because of the journey they will take us on?
It seems the Early Access world has two camps; Early Access that expects players to pay and additionally be helpful members, flushing out bugs and ‘unforeseen’ problems with the system at hand as features are added, and Early access that doesn’t wish it’s users to be bug reporters, per se (the developer may implement an anonymous bug reporting routine into the program), but rather needs the funds to continue production in a timely manner and has turn to Steam (or Desura, or maybe even their own site) for this. However, although there may be a number of people willing to report bugs, the larger percentage of gamers just want to play your game and they’ll get turned off if it won’t work. In other words, if a gamer puts a game down, it’s going to take a lot to get him back, and if he remembers a game isn’t working, he may never return unless there’s enough buzz to bring him back to it.
Word of mouth sales are vital, and Early Access harms this. Forums scattered with opinions, Metacritic, review’s placated under a games sale page, and even the in-person process; all of these work in lieu to convince a gamer that he or she should pick up and try the game. Imagine the uproar that occurs in these places when polished games are riddled with bugs? I can’t seem to differentiate this with games that haven’t even been finished. Paying $15-30 (sometimes even $60!) to play a game, even when it’s got as many warnings as possible to distinguish it’s bugs as a byproduct of it’s nature, doesn’t sooth the gamer whatsoever.
But I’ve yet to touch on the flip side of this coin; the point of Early Access gaming is to help indie developers finish the projects they want to finish without feeling locked into financial hell. Although making games may not cost as much as it used or, or as much as other entrepreneurial endeavors, the cost is still high. Developers need to pay the cost for licensing and SDKs / IDEs, food and board while they finish the game if they work on the project as a full time process, especially if there are multiple people involved, and other miscellaneous costs such as server time, promotional material, and freelancer’s fees for completing small sub portions of the game’s content. When you pay into an Aarly Access game, you help these indie developers achieve these financial goals while they are continuing their progress on the game. It helps them dedicate more time and hopefully finish the game sooner, but games take time, and they take a lot of effort, and if your crew is small and your budget still thin, it may be awhile before your game comes out of the doors as a finished project.
It is exactly for these reasons that I think Early Access has become a fad and a buzz word as of late. Gamer’s love the idea of supporting indie developers, but may trash their product if it’s incomplete or riddled with bugs; they may praise the effort to support ‘real developers’ (non-corporate) but still fail to support the real bug reporting process which is essential in Early Access due to the insight of the game running on several different systems. So what’s the point of Early Access? People support it for the wrong reasons. Although it is nice that there is a trickle in of funds for developers, they’re products suffer in reputation and possible future sales due to first impressions that last very long in the eyes of gamers.
I’m a photographer turned game designer, and this blog used to be a visual journal of things I found quite intriguing in my OCD habit of collecting imagery from the internet. When I noticed I wasn’t alone in this, however, I carried on for awhile, and eventually stopped.
With the birth of our company, Space Cadet Labs, I am intrigued in making use of some of the assets I’ve previously left ‘unused’. I will be posting commentary about game design in general, updates on the games we create, and reviews / commentaries on games I play.