games


Lego Batman 2 was on sale recently, so I picked it up.  In brief: the main story is fun and very cute; the open world bit is only half cooked.

Where should I stand to press G?

Where should I stand to press G?

I’ve never played one of these Lego games before, so here’s how that works: the characters are made of Legos. So are part but not all of their surroundings– in general, the Lego bits are the things you can interact with, which is a pretty clever bit of design signaling.  (If you’ve played the others, apparently it’s a big thing that in this one the characters talk.)

A level basically consists of a series of obstacles, to be solved by the characters’ special abilities. E.g. you might use Batman’s batarangs to destroy something out of reach, or Robin’s acrobatics to climb, or Superman’s super-breath to turn water into ice (which can be traversed). It looks like it’s optimized for two-player co-op, but it’s quite easy to play solo– there’s a key press to switch characters. At first you only get Batman and Robin, but later you get Superman and then a whole slew of heroes. The puzzles are designed so that you have to switch frequently.

Sometimes when you destroy something, they can rebuild the Lego pieces into something else. Often this is a suit dispenser: jump on it and Batman or Robin changes into a different outfit with new powers. In the screenshot, Bats is wearing his Electrical Suit, which lets him walk through electrified areas and power devices up or down.

The story levels are a lot of fun. The designers have worked hard to make the game look and act like a set of toys: the characters waddle around cutely, they look pleased as punch when they change suits, when a character dies it shatters into blocks, and you are encouraged to mindlessly destroy things. If you die yourself, you respawn right there, so it’s never a real setback. Most of the time it’s fairly clear what to do; I am not very good at the sort of thinking required and had to consult a walkthrough.

The game was evidently designed for consoles, so it comes with a pretty horrible set of controls– all keys, no mouse. I had to remap just about everything to have it make sense. (I recommend using the arrow keys for movement, using space for jump and E for action as in sanely designed games, then using T for tag and G for ‘special’. Then you move with the right hand and do stuff with the left.) There aren’t many controls, and most are explained in-game, but they neglected to tell you how to punch things (it’s Action, the one I remapped to E).

After the Asylum mission you can wander Gotham City as you like. The walkthrough suggested that you wait till the story mode is over before doing so, as there’s a lot you can’t do till you’ve unlocked all the basic heroes. This is bad advice, because the story missions are the best part, and you shouldn’t rush through them.

In any case, the main mission took me about 15 hours. After this you can roam Gotham and pick up new characters.

Robin and Catwoman on a date at the carnival

Robin and Catwoman on a date at the carnival

This part of the game is frankly disappointing. For one thing, you have to buy each character– not with real money, but with the studs you’ve collected by destroying Lego objects. This was a strange design decision, because it’s easy to run out of studs, so you can’t collect more heroes till you go on a rampage. And busting up objects, in the quantities needed to collect 50 characters, is not that fun.

There’s a lot to do– climb buildings as Robin, rescue citizens, drive or boat around. But it feels like you have to run a round quite a bit to find these diversions. Finding the unlockable characters sounds like it should be a great time– each one is slightly different– but for the most part the fights are too easy and the payoff is low. (One exception is Lex Luthor, who you want for his special gun that destroys black Lego objects, which no other character can do.) Plus if you defeat them and you don’t have enough studs, you’re out of luck, which is a strange punishment for the game to apply.

So, it’s fun to run around for awhile changing characters, but actually unlocking everyone and finding all the collectibles doesn’t seem very attractive. I think they would have done a lot better to have fewer characters, but more challenging mini-levels to get through to unlock them.  Or have more character-specific things to do, like the Robin acrobatics diversions.

Story mode has a story, by the way.  It’s pretty good, as Batman stories go. Probably the best thing about it is the interaction between grumpy Batman and cocky jocky Superman. It lightly pokes fun at their relationship, and yet it actually creates a character arc for the game, which is more than you might expect in a kids’ version of DC.

To my surprise, I’ve been playing League of Legends for over a month now. With an ordinary game I’d be a guru; with Mobas this means you’re still a bright green noob, but you understand the basic mechanics and have some favorite champions.

Sometimes fans come up with awesome game variants. In TF2 we occasionally play all melee, or maybe all one class, which can be a blast. LOL players came up with All Random All Mid, which means random champions fighting it out only in the mid lane. Riot turned this into an actual game mode. To make it even more deathmatchy, you start at level 3 and generate mana faster, but don’t heal if you return to base. And to lower the pain of having to play champions you suck at, you can trade before the game with other players, and have a limited ability to re-roll.

Screen31

It’s a lot of fun. I’ve actually played far more ARAM than the normal game, and I recommend it to newcomers, for two reasons:

  • It’s faster and lower-key. People understand that you may be playing champions you haven’t mastered. Plus there’s far less strategy. “Stay together and try to hit the enemy” is almost all the plan you need.
  • The random process is biased toward champions you’ve played, or own, though it throws in new ones too. So it’s an excellent way to learn the frigging huge array of champions. In normal games, even with matchmaking geared to your level, there’s less tolerance for trying someone new.

My first loves are still Jinx, Ashe, and Sona. But in ARAM I’ve also done well with Quinn, Anivia, Heimerdinger, Nasus, Sivir, Karthus, and Amumu.

Today I realized why, when I play with my friend Ash, I seem to suck more. It’s because he’s a far higher-level player, so the matchmaking finds better opponents. E.g., last night in one of our games, I was Nasus, and had a dispiriting 1/16/16 record. But then I happened to play Nasus in a game with my peers, and dominated: 16/4/31. So if you’re playing with much better friends, be aware of this tradeoff: it’s more companionable but you’re going to be reminded how much you’ve still got to learn.

Champions all share the same basic controls: mouse2 for basic attack, Q/W/E for their main spells, and R for their ultimate (a powerful spell with a long cooldown). At first you can use the strategy “spam QWE and use R when you can”, but of course you need to be smarter, and understand your champions. E.g. Nasus’s Q is very distinctive: each time he gets a kill, it gets more powerful. That means you want to spend a good deal of the early game carefully hitting Q just before killing a minion– since you don’t get the upgrade if you merely hurt them. In a normal game you might spend 10-15 minutes doing this, but even in ARAM you want to spend some time at it.

With Nasus it can be very effective to first hit E to produce an area of effect damage (but be wary: players at my level are dumb enough to stay in it taking damage, but higher-level players aren’t), then W to slow down a champion, and Q to hopefully finish him off. As always in ARAM, don’t try to play solo; hit with your team.

Jinx has an entirely different strategy. Her W is a rocket with one of the longest ranges in the game, effective for harassing from a distance. E sends out some “chompers”, stationary mines which hurt and slow enemies; this can be used for area denial, thinning out a crowd, or slowing down a pursuer. Her R is an infinite-range rocket, which ideally is used to take out an enemy from across the map; it’s particularly effective on ARAM where enemies conveniently group themselves in a line. I didn’t understand or use her Q for a long time; it switches to a minigun that’s very powerful at close range. You want to use it only when enemies are near death, to finish them off.

How do you learn all this? Reading guides and watching videos can help, but there’s nothing like playing a lot, and seeing what works and what doesn’t. And again, ARAM is best for experimenting.

Screen19

Recently LOL introduced a temporary game mode called Ascension. I enjoyed it a lot though I never got good at it. I did have one perfect game playing as Sona, screen-capped above. Sona’s Q is an area-of-effect damage, W heals her and nearby allies, and E moves faster; her R immobilizes enemies. We stayed in a close knot, I spammed Q and W almost constantly, and we ruled: team score 200-107, kills 64-28, four ascensions on our side, none on theirs. (But this was exceptional– Ash says that Ascension rewards jungler/assassin champions, and I’m not good at any of those.)

I did have a moment of glory in another Ascension game. The mode has a boss, and if you defeat him you assume his powers– you Ascend. The best strategy is to let the other team wear him down, then attack them and finish off the boss. The enemy team was battling the boss alone, and as Jinx, I sashayed in and got the last hit and the Ascension. Moments like that can make up for a string of losses…

Riot has an interesting monetization strategy: they make most of their money selling skins and other things that don’t directly affect gameplay.  (You can buy champions either with real money or with experience points, so they make money off of impatience.)  I read an article which pointed out that they could make far more money with pay-to-win.  But they prefer to keep their fans happy, which strikes me as a far better long-term strategy.  (Still, buying skins is a little disappointing: your character is so small on the screen that it’s hardly worth bothering.)

Yahtzee Croshaw not only does hilarious animated reviews of video games, he writes columns too, did you know?  His latest column is about gender diversity in video games, and it’s an excruciating near-miss.

All games do need a fatness slider

All games do need a fatness slider

The problems start with the title: “Should every game allow you to choose your gender?” Which is a straw man (and not a straw woman). No one has asked for that.  Many games are telling a story about a particular character– Batman, Chell, Sam & Max, Jade, Corvo, Lara– and it’s OK for particular characters to have a gender.  It’s when the character is Generic Space Marine or Generic Spaceship Captain or Generic Zombie Hunter or Generic Swordsperson that there is no reason to limit the player to one gender.

But it hardly matters if a choice of gender is merely aesthetic and means nothing to the game, because it can still mean something to the audience.

Here’s where Yahtzee almost gets it.  Yes, Skyrim doesn’t care if your adventurer is male or female, but it means something to the player. And you don’t have to have AAA studio resources to handle this; games as simple as Dungeons of Dredmor and Don’t Starve allow it.

…it might not be possible to separate a character from their gender. James Sunderland from Silent Hill 2 springs to mind, as a central theme of that game is frustrated male sexuality.

Ah, the GTAIV excuse– they had to have three male characters because they were “exploring masculinity”. Like just about every other damn game.  It’s not horrible to have one more male fantasy hero– it’s just extremely well trodden ground. And trying to use the game to subvert the standard male fantasy hero does not really work as well as some designers think. Your game is what the player spends 90% of their time doing, not whatever contrary thematic material you add at the end or in cutscenes. If what the player is doing is shooting, you’ve made a shooter, not a clever deconstruction of shooters.

Perhaps this confirms the existence of a lack of diversity, but I’m not sure how to fix that. Game developers do remain predominantly male through no fault of their own, and asking them, from a male perspective, to make games about a female perspective, would probably produce something rather disingenuous.

This is what we might call a Chestertonian objection… Yahtzee is being clever, but it’s still a silly rationalization. For one thing, it’s hardly a weird radical idea for men to write female characters.  They’ve been doing it for three thousand years.  It’s something an artist should be able to do. And many games do it very well!  No one complains that FemShep, or Portal 2‘s Glados, or  Ragnar Tørnquist‘s April Ryan, are grotesquely unbelievable; quite the opposite.

Plus, you don’t know how to fix it? How about hiring female developers? Kim Swift led the team that created the well-beloved Portal; Rhianna Pratchett was the key writer on Mirror’s Edge and Tomb Raider; Roberta Williams created the King’s Quest games.

I know that it’s very easy for me, a white dude, to say that about a white-dude-dominated industry. But I don’t buy the argument that biological similarities like race or gender strongly affect whether or not the player identifies with a character.

I’m a white dude too, which is why I defer to non-whites and non-dudes on whether they identify with white dude characters. And what they report is pretty consistent: if you’re not a white dude, you have to identify with white dude characters, but you’d like to not always have to.

Yahtzee reports that he identifies more with Lara Croft than with Kratos. That’s lovely, but Lara is still a rarity– Yahtzee is not often called upon, as a gamer, to trot out his empathy skills. Non-white or non-male gamers have to do it all the time, and it gets tiring.

Plus, many of us like to see the world from other people’s perspective. I like playing female characters, and I’ve argued that they make better player characters anyway.

I don’t think that hero-damsel enforces misogyny. After all, the protagonist, the male, is the one who has it worst. He’s the one who has to put himself at pain, and even die, over and over again, in an endless cycle of torment, for the benefit of the women.

Another Chestertonian paradox. But Yahtzee seems to have forgotten that he’s talking about games– there is no pain and no death involved, he is not sacrificing himself for the pixels arranged to form a female NPC. If you’re not trying to make cute arguments, it’s obvious that the hero-damsel trope is a male power fantasy. It’s designed to make males happy; females, not so much. And that’s precisely the problem: it’s a trope that alienates half your audience.

It’s not hard to understand that people like to enact a fantasy of being the rescuer. But it shouldn’t take Boddhisatva levels of empathy to understand that being rescued feels very different, and isn’t much of a fantasy at all. Plus, how many times in your life, past toddlerhood, have you had to be rescued? It’s really tone deaf of Yahtzee to imagine that this trope is somehow doing women a favor.

And if I object to that, it’s because it’s lazy, and tired [...]. Hero-damsel isn’t trying, it’s too easy.

This is where he almost gets it. Yes, it’s a tired, lazy old trope. But so is, say, red meaning “stop” or “blood”, or tutorial dungeons having giant rats and goblins, or a reversal at the end of Act I. Some tropes are old and good; some are shallow but extremely narratively convenient; some should be shaken up now and then to add variety. But some are past their sell-by date– they’re narrative survivals from a time when attitudes were much more regressive. It’s good to reject them for being hackneyed; it’s also good to reject them because they’re insulting and offensive.

I do think it’s true that games could use more diversity. But when I say that, I mean diversity of ideas, thoughtfulness, and perspectives. And that takes a whole lot more than just numerically equalizing the ham sandwiches to the sausage rolls.

Another almost-gets-it moment, followed by another straw man.

Where do you think diversity of perspectives come from? From diverse people. Put a bunch of white dudes in a room, and you’ll get some variation, but you’ll get more if you add people from other genders, races, and cultures. It’s strange and frustrating to see Yahtzee take this position, when half his reviews are scathing rants about the sameness of most games. Put it together, man. Put the same white dudes in the same room all the time, and what do you think will come out?

Of course, diversity in the HR sense isn’t the only way to get new ideas. But it’s a pretty good way to start, and if you take it seriously, it’s an excellent corrective to the groupthink and conventionalism that produce cookie-cutter games.

All the fuss about the Dota 2 tournament finally got my curiosity up, and I decided to reinstall it. Steam tells me I’ve played it for 45 hours, pretty much every one of which was full of confusion and dread.

Lina does not need your petty 'armor'!  Ouch (dies)

Lina does not need your petty ‘armor’! Ouch (dies)

If you know TF2, you know it takes some time to learn to play the nine classes, and many players never bother with some of them. In Dota 2 and LoL there are over a hundred. They do break down into overall roles (pusher, support, jungler, assassin…), but their abilities vary and each has to be learned separately. Worse yet, you have to learn how to play against each one, and then you have to worry about which ones combine together well. Oh well, there’s only ten thousand possible combinations. No wonder there’s enough strategic depth to support professional competition.

So anyway, I tried some Dota 2 and never felt like I was getting it. So I decided to try out League of Legends, not least because my friend Ash works for them.

Lux sux when I play her; devastating on enemy team

Lux sux when I play her; she’s devastating on the enemy team

For what it’s worth, I think LoL is a little easier to pick up. You don’t have to worry about denies (killing your own creeps so the enemy can’t), or carriers. Plus it feels like you can use your spells a little more generously, which is more fun. But they’re really very similar games.

(Dota 2 tries to characterize the opposing teams more– they’re the Dire and the Radiant, and the art direction makes it seem like good vs evil. But any hero can play for any team, and none of it leads anywhere, so this effort seems misplaced. LoL just has Blue and Purple.)

The basics of the game are simple enough. Most of the fighting is done by hordes of NPC minions, who advance to the enemy, fight them, and destroy protective turrets. If you destroy the enemy’s farthest building, the Nexus, you win. You play a Champion, who can attack enemy minions and turrets and, more importantly, harass or kill enemy Champions.

You pretty much have to put aside your FPS reflexes. You don’t just whale on minions– you only get gold and XP if you actually kill them (getting the “last hit”). In the early game you’re weak, and it’s best to wait till you can be sure of getting that hit. You use the XP to advance in level, and the gold to buy items to enhance your skills.  You generally reserve your abilities (which have a cooldown and so must be doled out) for enemy Champions.  It takes a delicate balance to wear them down without taking too much damage yourself.  Most champions have an “ult”, a skill with high damage and long cooldown, which you want to save for a killing blow.

If you want to try it, there’s some brief tutorials, and then you can try games against bots, at three difficulty levels.  Just dive in; you’ll be matched with people of your level, so people rarely expect you to have skills you don’t know.  In bot games, in fact, people tend to be pretty quiet.  There’s no voice chat, which makes strategy a little harder but does avoid toxicity.

I’ve only played two games against humans, because then you need more skills– e.g. recognizing when enemies are missing, ‘cos then they’re probably hiding and waiting to gank you.  I won one and lost one.  The login server is down right now, or I’d be playing rather than blogging.

You can play any champion in Dota 2, but In Lol you must use a small set of free ones, or unlock them with in-game experience or actual cash dollars.  This sounds restrictive but is probably a better introduction, since it focuses your attention on learning a few champs at a time.

So, is it fun?  So far, yes.  I’m intimidated by the learning curve, but the matchmaking system means that (unlike, say, my other fave team game, Gotham City Impostors), you won’t get into a noobs-vs-gurus rout. Like any team game, it’s most fun when you play with friends, so bring a few along. 

(Don’t take any of this as a tutorial, though… it’s definitely a good idea to read a few intros and spectate some games.  Advanced guides will be incomprehensible, so alternate reading with playing against the bots to put what you know into practice.)

I picked this up during the Steam sale, and it’s a charmer, as well as a worthy addition to the list of great games that have popped out of the indie bubble.  It’s kind of like the original Sam & Max mated with The Naked Gun.

Polygons working together

Polygons working together

Let’s start with the look, which is highly stylized– the layouts are all classy retro with simple textures, and the characters look like toddlers’ toys.  It works– I don’t think realistic human figures would have improved the game– and it probably saved a load of development time.  I should emphasize though that it’s a fully 3-D game, not some kind of point-and-click thing.

I also feel like I can’t say too much about it– it’s like The Stanley Parable, you should go in cold.  The plot is simple enough: you’re a private eye, or maybe you work for a cop, and you go on missions. These are not particularly challenging as missions… which is fine by me, I like never having to seek out a walkthrough.  You can save at any time, but I’ll tell you right now that it never proved necessary to reload.

The plot and the puzzles are really secondary; the real game is in going around seeing what you can do in the game.  Wait, did I mention yet that this is a comedy?  A lot of the humor comes when you put off the quest directions and wander around interacting with people and things.

Not all of the jokes are boffo, but it’s definitely in the Airplane!/Naked Gun mold, where if one joke doesn’t grab you, it’s OK ‘cos another will be by in a few seconds.  There’s a lot of fourth-wall breaking, a lot of surrealism, and a bunch of electronics jokes.  (Though there are robot characters, the idea I think is that the characters kind of know they’re in a computer simulation.)

The one downside is that it’s very short.  Though you’ll probably want to play it again to find all the stuff you didn’t notice the first time.

 

 

 

In reference to your recent post about Microtransactions, I was wondering what’s your take on the supposed Indie Game Soon-To-Bubble Bust. Are masses of people paying $1 for bundles of five games the reality of microtransactions in action, and, if so, is it heading for a fall?

—Tricky

I assume you’re referring to this article by developer Jeff Vogel.  Sample quotes:

Then even more developers, sincere and hard-working, looked at this frenzy and said, “I’m sick of working for [insert huge corporation name here]. I would prefer to do what I want and also get rich.” And they quit their jobs and joined the gold rush. Many of them. Many, many. Too many.

With so much product, supply and demand kicks in. Indies now do a huge chunk (if not most) of their business through sales and bundles, elbowing each other out of the way for the chance to sell their game for a dollar or less.

Now, I’m not in the business.  If Vogel’s message is “Don’t expect to make a fortune making indie games,” I’m sure he’s right, and anyway, didn’t we know that?  Most new businesses fail, and 90% of everything is crap.

Still, his article reminded me of the old Dizzy Dean quote: “Nobody goes there anymore— it’s too crowded.”

As a gamer, I think the current market is fantastic.  Before Steam, you may recall, you had to go to your local Best Buy or GameStop or whatever, and you had your choice of the current AAA titles.  Now you have publishers’ entire catalogs available, plus a slew of mid list titles, plus a pulsating scrum of tiny indie games.  And if you’re willing to wait for the next Steam sale, you can get just about any of them at a bargain.

Plus, the barrier to entry has plummeted.  You can make a mighty fine game with Unity, and an astonishing game with Unreal Engine 4.  Which means that even a one- or two-man team can produce something graphics snobs like me will buy.

It’s also good news for diversity— new kinds of games, a more varied palette of developers.

Again, 90% of indie games will be crap.  But there will be treasures, too, like Gunpoint and SpyParty.  Whether people listen to Vogel or not, whether or not there’s a bust, some people will continue to make small, neat games and some of them will even make money.

Most creative endeavors have this glut of creators— look at books or music.  A huge percentage of my friends and family have written a book, been in a band, drawn a comic, or made a game.  Being able to quit your day job is still going to be rare.

As for microtransations, I dunno. The Wikipedia article on the Humble Bundles is interesting reading; many of these sales have netted over $1 million. The maker of Dustforce reported that before their game was included in a bundle, Steam sales were about 10 a day; during the bundle it reached 50,000 a day, and afterward it remained at a higher level— 50 a day.  Seems like a win.

(My understanding is that the mobile game market is pretty much ruined for small players; I’m only talking about PC games here.  I think Steam has thrown its enormous weight behind the idea of making it easy to make, mod, and buy games, and that inhibits predatory behavior.)

The sheer number of games does raise a question: how do you know which ones are any good?  I rely a lot on a few game sites, but I’m sure I miss a lot of games.  Steam has reviews and recommendations, but neither has been very helpful. If you’re looking for an idea for a killer social media site, I’d suggest creating guides for navigating the Long Tail.

 

 

I’ve got back into making model after model in Blender– current count is 140.  When we last looked in on Ticai, the game looked like this.  Now it looks like this:

Ticai contemplates encroaching urbanization

Ticai contemplates encroaching urbanization

Now I know why, in a game, you’ll often be right next to interesting-looking spaces you can’t get to. Why can’t I go over and explore it?

A game level, conceptually speaking, works like this:

gamezones

There’s a very detailed area where the player can explore. Here you’ll get real doorknobs and window frames and pipes, 3-d trees, and all the hidden triggers that make the level work, like working doors and ladders.

Just outside it is areas you can see into, but can’t get to. Because they’re close, they have to be pretty well rendered, though of course nothing will be interactive.

Outside that is a land of increasing fakery. Here the architectural details are likely to be part of the texture, and for any object, only the sides facing the player need to exist. Even farther out, you get the skybox. In Hammer you can have objects there, coarsely modeled, so you can see far into the distance. At this point you model a tree by pasting a picture of a tree on a transparent quad, and far details like clouds may also be 2-d pictures.

You can’t get into those nice nearby areas because it’d get too close to the fakery zone, and the illusion would be spoiled. The level designer may need to put a lot of work into inaccessible areas, but they’ll only work enough to make it look good from the accessible one.

(This applies to Valve games, as well as games like Dishonored, Mirror’s Edge, Bioshock, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age. It doesn’t entirely apply to open worlds like Skyrim or Saints Row or Arkham City, which have to use different methods to manage the huge maps– though note that interiors still involve a level change. Unity allows huge maps, but I don’t have a development team to fill them!)

Here’s what the city looks like in the editor:

What you'd see with a rocket jump

What you’d see with a rocket jump

Ticai can wander just the four city blocks in the middle of the picture. You can see that the modeling gets simpler outside this region, and even within it there’s some fakery– e.g. there’s no need to create roofs for buildings if there’s nowhere she can get high enough to see them.

You can see the map of the Nezi neighborhood, which I’m using for reference. Just to make those four accessible blocks, I’ve had to model about a third of the neighborhood, and I’m not done yet.

Here’s the mansion of the local aristocrats:

And that's just one wing

And that’s just one wing

I just redid the mansion this week– before the façade was basically a box with nice windows. You can also see a tree– Unity has a tree creator, which is good, because foliage is awful to model.

See the big white cubes in the city map?  Those are placeholders… maybe I can go model something to replace them with right now…

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