Back to Arkham City

There’s something about Batman that clicks with me.  A large part of that has to be related to the animated series in the 90s, which still stands shoulders above most others.  Kevin Conroy’s voice is just tatooed in my mind as Batman (as much as Mark Hamill as the Joker).  It helps that there really haven’t been too many clunker Batman video games (hellooooo Superman64!)

I still recall Arkham Asylum when it came out.  I scraped every bit of that game clean, bugs and all.  It had the metroidvania hooks, a decent showing of the Batman villains and setting, and what can only be described as a superb combat system.

If you haven’t played it in the Arkham series, then you may have in the Shadow of Mordor series.  Fast flowing melee combat, quick traversal of distance between enemies, integration of skills, and the feeling of being absolutely surrounded and coming  out on top.  And I don’t mean you’re a lawnmower against grunts.  I mean that you need to pick the targets and pay attention to surroundings.  Dying is always a possibility.  (Side note, if Assassin’s Creed’s engine could put more than 3 people against you, then it would be a close relative.)

Mechanically, there have been some minor tweaks to combat in the 4 Arkham games (Asylum, City, Origins, Knight).  Melee combat stays the same, but the skill sets change, as do enemy types.  The last game added vehicle combat (meh), but the regular fights were much more strategic than the brawls of earlier versions.

The stories inside the games are ok I guess.  Asylum was pretty solid up til the final fight with a super-Joker.  Origins was more like Mega Man in that you’re hunting different enemies without much of an arcing story.  Knight had two stories, only about the actual Arkham Knight destroying things (redemption arc, naturally), and the other about Batman’s psychosis relating to the Joker (this was a knock out).

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Arkham City.  That one was signature Batman.  A puppet villain.  Interesting villains that don’t take up a lot of space. Catwoman.  Vertical gameplay (the floor is lava in quite a few places).  And the Joker twist, all the way to the credits has been etched in my brain for 8 years (launched Oct 18, 2011).  It was also the last time that I considered the Riddler puzzles “reasonable”.

I’ve been somewhat spoiled with AC: Odyssey in terms of game length.  Sure, that’s artificial padding since the content is computer generated, but the minimap icons!  Arkham City’s content is purposefully places, and the minimap icons are pretty much restricted to the Riddler trophies to collect.  The significant benefit here is that the story is paced and managed.  None of this “the end of the world is upon us, but oh, let’s do this 5 hour side quest.”  There’s a sense of urgency, yet at the same time there’s a lot of meat to chew.  In hindsight, it’s a level of balance that’s really hard to compare elsewhere.

The Game of the Year version (with a ton of DLC) is relatively cheap, plays well on any PC, and doesn’t look like/play like a 2011 game.  I’m still a Batman fan, and most games I play will still be compared to this one.

It’s Over, It’s Done

Canadian elections are over and everyone is full sorry.  Liberals remain in power, but with a minority.  There coalition that will form will have two main goals, social equality and climate change.  There are high odds that the 0.1% are going to get a tax hit (estate taxes are bit odd here).

The downside here is that the country is effectively split east/west.  West prioritises more immigration control, and less environmental regulation.  The former topic is way more complex, depending on what part of the country you live in.  This election had only 1 party talking about this, and they didn’t get a single person elected, not even withing voting margins of error.  So yay Canada!

The second issue is the environment and here is a split that is much more straightforward.  The “center” of the west is Alberta, where our oil fields are located.  For 100 years now, Alberta has been a boom or bust location, and nearly all of that is due to natural resources.  This part I understand… when all you’ve ever known is somehow deemed as evil, you get super defensive and confused.  There’s a similarity to the coal mines in the US.  It doesn’t matter if people promise more jobs, people need to be willing to buy it.  And it’s pretty hard to compete with indentured labor overseas in terms of cost.  The fact that Alberta hasn’t diversified, even in the boom years, is a true lost opportunity.

I won’t go into the west’s “less taxes” mandate, which historically has shown as non-tenable.  It gets complicated, so quickly.  Canada’s programs that are “ripe” for cutting are education and health care.  Two programs that if you cut, all hell breaks loose.  A similar aligned party tried it in Ontario… reverted everything.

Now for the good news.  As a general rule, even though we have different parties, we have shared views on nearly all topics.  There really isn’t a dramatic gap between parties, except on election-specific topics.  I say that in the objective sense… of course people between parties have significant disagreements.  But you’ll never hear of main line party rallies being assaulted, or threats from leaders.  There’s some comfort in knowing that at the end of the day, regardless of the political parties in charge, we’re still all Canadians.

Sorry.

 

Dauntless Pass Complete

The good thing about Battle Passes is that they make you play the game.  The bad part is that they make you play the game in such a way that your goals don’t always align with what you find fun.  I hit rank 50 in Dauntless a few days ago, it took about a week and a half I guess?  From a pass perspective, there’s nothing more to get.  From a game perspective, I’m full.

Given that this is the first attempt at card draws for the Battle Pass, I do think it had much more positive than negative.  Where I think there are gaps is in the variety of choice.  Selecting a fight is simple enough, you’re always going to need the materials that drop.  Those cards are always useful.  Stagger and Interrupt cards happen all the time.  Wound… not so much.  Only the War Pike does it naturally, you need to slot a specific item in your gear otherwise.  Not too big a deal.

Where things go a bit sideways is on quests that only allow 1 weapon (or sometimes two).  Because it takes such a large amount of material, you’re not exactly running around with one of every top tier weapon until a long ways into the game.  And due to the number mechanics, if you go into a fight with an underpowered weapon, you have a damage penalty to manage.  Might do 100 dmg to a level 8 behemoth, but only 10 against a level 15.  And not all weapon styles are for everyone.  I an not a fan of the War Pike.  The Hammer and Axe are pretty useless against fast moving enemies.

There are some cards that are all but impossible in a group.  Like break all parts before a kill.  I’ve killed the Shroud a few dozen times and only once was I able to break his tail.

Then there’s the item collection cards, used for crafting potions/grenades.  On the surface they seem simple enough, but in practice you’re going to end up not fighting behemoths and instead scouring the map for 5 of the 50 items you need.  It would be like trying to mine ore in a dungeon run, but the ore is 10 miles from where the enemies are.

Still, the fundamentals are there.  These are more wrinkles that can be set about with a few tweaks.  Some need to be removed, others changed in numbers. Frankly, I’m sure they have heat maps of all the cards and the metric around which are top 10 and bottom 10 would be neat to see.  Even more so if that selection was compared to the average item level of the hunters.  New players would certainly favour easier cards than veterans, if they even knew that they were easier.

Still impressed at all this growth from a relatively small group of developers (Path of Exile is similar in my mind).  If a small company can do so much with relatively few assets, really begs the question as to how large studios do so little with so much.

Training Wheels

A /venting post if there was one.

Two things are providing oodles of stress lately – work and coaching hockey.  There are a surprising amount of similarities between both.

At work I’ve taken on some new responsibilities, and a large part of that is to replicate the culture I put in place elsewhere.  The group I oversee now has their own culture, and one that really is a struggle to understand.  They certainly have their hearts in the right place, but the approach taken is just full of grievances.  Extremely valid ones.  I’ve done a bit of digging and the history behind this is just full of interesting bits.

Coming into this I’m put in the middle of the process and find myself saying “no” on a daily basis, because rarely does it pass the sniff test.  A fair chunk of this can be handled with some simple guides and training.  It’s frankly surreal that I have to train people at this, given their current job titles, but at the same time it seems clear they’ve not had the necessary support in the past.  If I can hit 80% of them taking a “smarter” way to tackle these big issues, that will have significant morale impacts.

As for hockey, we’re in a new league and a different approach to scheduling.  Our first game is this Saturday, and the schedule is still undergoing daily updates.  I have conflicts on Sunday, no practices from Nov until end of Jan, and games across town at 7am.  I coach house league, and if the game is not fun, then people won’t play.

It does beg the question as to why this is so difficult though.  People have been making sports schedules for over 100 years, using computers to do it since the 80s.  It’s entirely likely this is just learning curve, and next year will be 100x better.  Yet here it is also pretty clear that no one seems to have asked anyone how to make this work – checked with other leagues that have done this before.  Previous years, it was all done in a single Saturday with all coaches in a large room.  Somehow this new process is taking 3 weeks.

Enough venting for now.  Time to breathe.

 

 

Fallout in Space

There’s a bit of hyper here.  Or maybe it’s hope.  Stars with an H anyways.

Obsidian Games is on my list of “must play” developers.  There’s something about their games that screams “we’re a small shop but big ideas”.  KOTOR2 and Fallout:New Vegas exemplify that.  Awesome ideas, a whole lotta bugs, some interesting cut content.

I’ve had my eye on Outer Worlds for about a year now.  The concept boils down to Fallout in Space.  You get the equivalent of a SPECIAL system, skill checks, melee/ranged attacks, a mini-VATS system, dialogue trees, companions, quests.  Combine that with a dry/sarcastic humour set as a spacer, and you can have my $$$.

I’m not going to pretend that this won’t launch without game breaking bugs.  I don’t recall any Obsidian game that ever has.  It’s also an Epic Store exclusive for the first year on PC (minus the Microsoft store… since Obsidian is owned by Microsoft).  I already have that client for Dauntless and Outer Wilds.  It isn’t as full featured as Steam, but it does offer cross play for Dauntless, has a lot of games, and has way less overlay than say, Origin.

Game launches on Oct 25.  I’ll have my Dauntless pass complete by then (level 41/50 now), and I’m guessing I’ll have some time set to pay this bad boy.

Thinking on Your Feet

Blizzcon is in 3 weeks.  Typically the “hate train” lasts only 2 weeks in the collective consciousness of the internet mob.  Interesting to see where this ends up, and who gets sucked into it.  (Related: I do believe in ethical purchased, but ethics are personal… so to each their own.)

I was at the rink the other day watching some kids take a practice, talking to another coach.  I also played a couple times this week (another tonight), then took a pint with the guys afterwards.  For anyone that’s played any sport at a competitive level, there are points of reference in a game where you know people understand the fundamentals, or they understand the meta.

I’ll use hockey here, but this applies to any sport.  There are rules that govern how the players participate – # of players, positions, timing, offsides, points, and so on.  Anyone can learn those rules.  Then there’s the skill level of the sport, how fast can you move, your level of agility, or reaction time.  Elite athletes spend 12 months a year on this, close to 6 days a week.  It’s a job, and there’s always someone hunting to take it from you, so some motivation!

Then we get to vision.  I’ll take a sidebar here and discuss chess.  The really good chess players have memorized key positions and plays, and they reference them with each turn, selecting the move they think best fits.  It isn’t just one chess piece, they are seeing 5-6 into the future, setting up their long term plays.    It may seem to be a long game, but most times you know who’s going to win after 10 moves and the rest is just playing out the game to it’s natural end.

Back to hockey (or any other group sport).  There are key positions and plays that exist, and the coaching staff has a preference for their team.  Some prefer a stretch pass game, where they beat on speed.  Others prefer a 2-1-2 game of passing for an open one-timer.  Dump and chase.  Drop passes.  The somewhat new 1-3-1 PP.  Then there’s the defensive structure to counter those plays.

Hockey (soccer/rugby/basketball too) are fluid games, in the sense that the amount of time you have to adapt to a play is very small.  This makes the game generally more dynamic, and inserts a level of randomness compared to something like US football.  For people who understand the sport at that level, they can see plays coming well in advance.  Not so much a goal (since the goalies have a say in that) but in the opportunity of scoring.  Without that understanding, people still have a sense of awe to what happened because a clean play transcends a sport.  Who doesn’t appreciate a long-ball alley-oop in basketball?

Gaming

A lot of games have this reactionary model.  It’s why team-based competitions focus so much on practice of plays, and paying attention to their opponents.  True, actions-per-minute have a dramatic impact on success, but the wisdom to read a play, adapt, and execute a counter is amazing to watch.  The hiccup here is that a game has a limited shelf-life, or for the longer-term ones, the rule sets change over time.  The level of expertise/wisdom for a game therefore only lasts a short window (LoL/DOTA are a different conversation.)

It’s hard to build a game with the level of depth required to stand out.  Battle-chess can never really stick around because it’s not player driven, and the strategies are extremely limited.  FPS games have inherent limitations due mainly to map memorization, they need more horizontal options to add that complexity (see Titanfall).

Now there’s a ceiling and a floor for this concept.  The floor is the minimum understanding required to participate.  Games with incredible complexity often require a serious amount of player knowledge to even play (most CCG, EvE, or P&P RPG).  That limits the potential playerbase.  The ceiling is the point at which good players are separated from amazing players.  The closer that spread, the shorter the ceiling.  There aren’t a whole lot of games out there with low floors and high ceilings, which would cast the largest potential net of players and spectators.  Say what you want about Fortnite, but the floor/ceiling in that game is a WIDE spread, and adaptive play is essential for people to success (without aim bots).

Game design is hard.  Great game design is a rare event, that requires a spectacular team and vision.  And like a great sports play, by playing a great game you just know from a quick look that it’s going to be a good time.

Incentivizing Play

This topic has been stirring in my head for a very long time, and at the end of the day way more complicated than this post will do justice.  Attempts will be made!

Design of any consumable service follows the same general themes.  You want the majority of people to take a specific path, allow for some variance, and put in guardrails for the lead chip lovers.  I keep thinking of Lemmings in that sense… rarely will you hit 100%, and most realistic goals are to hit 80%.

In the game design space, this applies in the general sense, then again at the activity level.  You want people to participate along a designed path and reach a designed end point.  You build mechanisms to re-enforce that message, and try to keep people in the same general line.  You launch and use various metrics to measure the success of those mechanisms.  Then re-adjust, launch more mechanisms, and analyze FOREVER.

The trick here is the mechanisms, which typically fall into the carrot/stick archetypes.  Reward good actions and punish bad ones.  The scope of those impact the % of people who follow the line.  Most of the time.  In some games the end point is so poorly planned that players reach it early/late/never and the whole thing falls to pieces.  I can’t say I’m surprised at how quickly Ragnaros dropped in WoW Classic, but I can say I’m  disappointed that people thought that was the actual goal.

Good design has a linear path, appropriate ramps to get people on/off that path, and an end goal that players understand early on.  It appears achievable, and is desirable.  E.g. a car race and you want to be in 1st.

Great design has a non-linear path, and intersects with other systems.  It has layered goals, that are not necessarily linear in structure, but have inter-dependencies.  There’s a continuous feedback loop, and a gradual feeling of progress.  e.g. pretty much any PnP RPG is built on this model.

Content vs Consumption

A big problem as games have become services.  It always takes longer to build something than to break it down.  4 hours of baking and 15 minutes of eating.  Years of research and writing, read in a half day.  Where the wins come is from volume.  If it’s 4 hours of baking, and 20 people take 15 minutes, well that’s a decent exchange.  Sell 10,000 books, ok.  Design for 6 months and 6,000 people play it… uh, maybe not?

Game designers have learned to depend on time-gating mechanics.  Sure, the original reason was to slow down the locusts that broke other systems (gold faucet/sink economies are fragile in that respect) but as time went on, this started applying to everyone.  The fatigue mechanic in nearly all F2P games is a good example, where the drive in monetization (and in a capitalistic sense, reasonable).

The fatigue mechanic in a system that cannot be bypassed… that gets irritating.  Especially if you’re gating a high-volume/fun activity.  But how do you know if that activity is viewed as fun, rather than simply rewarding?  LFR in WoW is free epics, while the original goal was simply to expose raiding design investment to more of the population.  Take out the epics and see how many people do LFR.  I mean really, take out the epics and remove the raid lockout restrictions – see what happens.

Dauntless

It’s F2P and the monetization system is based on 2 streams: battle passes and cosmetics.  From a financial perspective, they want people to take the battle pass, so the pricing structure clearly favors that, rather than 1-off customization options.  But the design of the game is predicated almost entirely on group-based combat, so they need a lot of people to make it attractive.

So they made the battle pass work for both free players and paid players.  Paid players get extra bonuses on that track, and a miniscule amount of extra drops in a fight (you get more if you don’t get knocked out).  Progress on this bar is through 3 methods:

  1. Daily collections in town (for 100 pts)
  2. Random drops from hunts (really random…)
  3. Completing tasks (20, 40 or 100pts)

Tasks used to be assigned with 1 weekly and 3 dailies.  They could be anything – hunt with repeaters, collect flowers, stun 5 times, attack with fire.  If you got bad rolls, then you may end up with objectives you didn’t want to do.  I dislike Pikes, and I really disliked any task that deal with Pikes.  Not to mention the need to actually build a decent Pike first.

The new Bounty system provides 4 slots of tasks.  You need a token (get some per week, as battle pass reward, or random drops) and that gives a random set of 3 tasks to pick from.  In the 50 or so times I’ve done this, only once has there been 3 options I didn’t like – and it made me play the game in a fashion I disliked even more.  In 75% of the cases, it had no impact at all since it mapped to my preferred playstyle. In the rest, it was a minor tweak (e.g. swap to a fire weapon, or focus on stunning rather than breaking) that made the fight marginally more interesting.

Now, clearly there are heatmaps and metrics and data sets that will come from this.  I can’t imagine anyone purposefully selecting “collect 40 rocks” unless the other 2 options were more painful (e.g. use a grenade to stun).  There’s some tweaking that’s left.   Yet, the system itself does work.  It lets you keep playing the way you want, but opens up alternatives that you may not have considered.  It also means that multiple playstyles can all work to the same overall goal – so that a lowly Pike player can get success just as much as an Axe fanatic.

There is however a gap once people complete the battle pass.  Since there’s no real hard time gating (a bit of RNG for extra token drops), entirely possible that people get it all done in a few days of hardcore grinding.  But there’s still the long term mastery system goals, and the weekly time trials to keep folks going.  Whether those two goals are actual things people want… another discussion, for another time.