Ring in the Year

Clearly 2020 sucked. Some good bits in there, but overall still something I’m happy is in the rear-view mirror. 2021 at least has some measure of hope.

The year reinforced the idea that my kids have won the ovarian lottery. The only other possible advantage they could have had is being male (I write this conscious of its implications), and even then in my country the gap is a whole lot smaller than others. They have 2 well-to-do, bilingual, caring, educated parents, who have had no financial impacts from this pandemic. They were provided with equipment to continue learning at a distance. Full health care. If 2020 did something right, it was making me more aware of that situation and thankful for it.

2020 did bring us Hades, which is just a simple testament to all that is good in gaming. A developer that respects its clients, its staff, and has a clear vision in development. Ghost of Tsushima is in a similar boat, though a larger organization with a tad more resources. The less said about others, the better. Gaming was a major outlet for most of the global population, if sales are any indication.

WoW launched an expansion, which is an improvement on BfA. Admittedly, it would seem to be more effort to be worse than BfA, so that is a somewhat backhanded compliment. The game has certainly not solved the borrowed power problem, in fact it’s pretty much doubled down on it here. People are cool with it because the power is only in one direction, compared to BfA’s continual power loss. My single largest gripe here is the horrible travel mechanics. The removal of the Flight Master’s whistle is shades of dumb on par with the initial removal of flying. Bastion has next to no flight points, and Revendreth is a vertical nightmare. And the Maw is just… for a game pillar, it’s still suffering from broken hunts (which are how you improve movement).

Kids are still kicking it with Minecraft. To a rather crazy degree working together. They don’t do any chat-based online games, for sanity reasons mostly. So no Fortnite in this house, while Rocket League is a-ok.

The wife and I watched the 2 seasons of The Mandalorian over the holiday break. Having Dave Filoni involved is evident in the quality and consistency of the storylines. The rotating directors make for varied storytelling approaches as well. I won’t lie, I geeked out fierce in the Krait dragon battle. No deep spoilers here, but the ending of season 2 pretty much closed the loop on nearly every thread that mattered to me. I can see how it will be used as a launching pad for a half dozen other Star Wars stories.

Wonder Woman ’84 was also on deck as my wife is a major fan. I really liked the first one (minus the last battle), and this one is ok I guess. There’s a lot of logic leaps in to follow here, even for a superhero movie. And it’s hard to ignore the fact that Wonder Woman rapes a stranger, when the film goes to great efforts to paint the opposite picture for Cheetah. It looks cool, and it’s better than nearly every other DC movie out there.

There’s a light at the end of the tunnel that my hockey will start again in the fall. Most of the country should have their shots by then. I am missing it something fierce. The backyard rink is up and running, though the very mild weather is making is a tad tougher than normal to manage. Snowshoeing is likely the main activity for the foreseeable future.

Even the summer is looking somewhat promising. The cottage is great as a getaway, but even better when we’re able to share it with people. The whole remote work efforts are making me strongly consider getting high speed internet for a few months, which is going to be costly but likely practical. I could always get a cell boost up, which is going to be a similar cost but only 1 time.

2021 has some interesting games on line. Horizon 2, God of War 2, Monster Hunter Rise (where I will be super tempted to get a Switch), maybe a clean Baldur’s Gate 3, Deathloop, Gotham Knights, and a slew of more indies all look promising. And without hockey, my gaming budget is a LOT higher. If ever video cards start to actually be launched, maybe I’ll build a new rig. Upgrading bits is fine, but a full rig today makes little sense.

As for the blog, 2020 was one of my more active years. I needed it for a multitude of reasons, and don’t see that going away in 2021. I’ll add a bit more to my reading list, as there are some really neat voices out there that provide some great perspectives.

Next post will follow the annual predictions that most blogs put out. Take care and happy new year!

Cyberpunk Setting New Bars

Most people are aware of the concept of precedence. Primarily used in legal settings, this allows you to compare two items that are similar and respond in a similar fashion. When the issue is brand new, then there’s a big argument around it, getting to a nation’s highest court. The ruling then sets precedence, allowing for future similar discussions to be solved much quicker. (The whole Trump voting thing lost because of precedence, and on rulings that a first day law student would know better than to try.)

The psychological impact of precedence is the real matter at hand. Individuals like surprises, people do not. Society is based on a set of rules and has trouble adapting when those rules are challenged or changed. Subverting expectation works in things like art, but rarely in other mediums. Uber decimated the taxi industry (and still doesn’t pay people enough, nor does the company actually make money). The pandemic has shown that society can manage work remotely – at least a LOT more than previously thought. That will cut the travel/hospitality industry to the knees, or any business dependent on “rush hour”. Change is by nature disruptive, but it also tends to set new expectation. And from that point on, precedence is set.

Precedence in gaming is a thing too. WoW is the bar by which nearly every MMO has been judged for 15 years! If your quests don’t have a ! around them, are they quests? If it doesn’t play like FIFA, is it really football/soccer? People don’t say “it’s a tactical game”, they say it plays like XCOM. There are so many games we’re forced to compare, and those comparisons have judgment.

All of that to Cyberpunk. Not the first company that’s an industry darling to make a mistake. It’s not the first game to have crazy hype. It is not the first game to promise so much more than it delivered. It is not the first game to subject its developers to insane crunch. It’s not the first game to launch to meet stockholder demands. And it’s not the first game to offer generous refunds.

You don’t have to look too far back here. Anthem was in this bucket. The good news for players was the EA pass structure, meaning most people were out like $20 instead of full retail. Diablo 3 offered refunds for everyone for a month after launch. Star Citizen still has not launched, and I’m astounded that it’s not the largest case of gaming fraud in history. Day 1 kitchen sink patches are expected now. There are plenty of discreet examples across time that show that this has happened before. Plenty of reasons that explain why pre-orders are bad for everyone.

What Cyberpunk has done instead is bring this all to 11.

  • CD Projekt was riding ultra high after a great track record – including the highly regarded Witcher 3.
  • It’s been hyped like mad for 8 years, and been taking pre-orders for nearly 3
  • It clearly launched in a overly buggy state, and is for practical purposes, not playable on last-gen consoles. This makes everyone look bad, including Sony/MS.
  • It promised, multiple times, to not have crunch. Then management demanded it for the last 6 months. They will, certainly, have a loss of talent because of this choice.
  • It’s launch was primarily a financial matter, so that they could claim the pre-order negative balance. It sold 8 million of them! WoW Shadowlands was the “highest ever” with 3.7m, a week before. Side note – it also has cost the company ~20% of total value due to stock depreciation (~$1.8b dollars), way more than the pre-orders generated.
  • The refunds are unheard of. You can’t even buy the game digitally right now for anything but PC. If you do have a copy, every single vendor is offering some form of refund. See prior line item to get an idea of the financial impacts of this.

Many games have launched in a state similar to this. Few have checked as many boxes as Cyberpunk, and checked them so forcefully. Some have come back from the dead (No Man’s Land), most have just cut their losses and moved on. This absolutely spectacular failure and set of consequences could have and should have been mitigated. Consumers are anti-ethical by nature, they could give 2 shits about crunch as long as the product has value (RDR2 in gaming, and the existence of WalMart in general). This was a cluster of mistakes that anyone with half a brain should have seen coming, and yet, here we are.

No, what Cyberpunk has actually done is a much larger problem. They’ve set a precedence for consequences of failure so absolute that the next person to fail even remotely close has to measure up to this response. How refunds are managed, and the decision to support or tank a game here on out for video game is the real target. This may not seem like a big deal to consumers, refunds are part of life right? Yeah, on the other side of the machine is a financial team that measures risk and liability. 80% of the people impacted by that decision have zero power to impact it. EA and Acti/Blizzard execs are sweating bullets thinking “this could be us!”

The optimist in me says this will mean games will have to launch with higher QA standards than what we’ve seen. That quality will not only be rewarded, but expected. The pessimist in me says that this will put an elite bar on games where anything that doesn’t score say an 80 on metacritic is a target for a massive refund drive from gamers, and that there really isn’t any way for suppliers to push back.

And to close here, I feel ultra bad for the CD Projekt development team. They knew this was going to happen (well, maybe not the refunds) and management did nothing. They did nothing multiple times! The company has lost billions of dollars from this. That usually comes with consequences, and these folks do not need that additional stress over the holidays. All because someone wanted to print a number on a quarterly review. Rather than a few execs taking a smaller bonus, they’ve now put the entire company under the lens.

200 Awards!

I do think this is emblematic of gaming problems today, especially in the AAA field.

How a game won 200 awards and no one actually played it… that’s astounding. That this game is both simultaneously on multiple Game of the Year lists AND allowing for a no questions asked refund from every supplier is insane.

Under this logic Star Citizen should have a few thousand awards too.

Holiday Break

I have many, many faults. Oh boy. Lots. One of the larger ones is when someone tells me I can’t do something. It’s like a dare and I have to prove them wrong. Enough introspection on this is really a self-confidence aspect where I need to prove to myself that there’s nothing I can’t do. There’s a 1 sentence summary of 20 years of self-reflection for ya!

So what does this mean in a practical sense? It means I just don’t give up, and will try and try until I wreck myself. I live on the edge of eternal burnout, always pushing myself to do more. It has serious impacts on every part of my life, and without counsel, it can be destructive in my relationships. I might invest myself into a project so fully that my mind just cannot disconnect from the topic, even if I’m with my family. I seem distant and detached. I can be irritable if there’s a big problem I’m on the edge of solving and something “simple” gets in the way. I can be downright hostile if someone gets in my way of implementing a change.

I’ve taken to multiple tools to help regulate this. Games are a massive one, where my problem solving/optimization mindset can target something else. Physical activity / workouts allow me to burn energy in a focused spot, though I do tend to push myself to limits here. Reading and talking about my mindset are also great outlets. Talking to myself in the mirror is how I start and end my days (it doesn’t answer me yet, so I’m good).

When I don’t do this, when I push myself too much, my body enters survival mode. I lose my appetite, I have trouble sleeping, and I’m effectively running on fumes. I can live in this mode for a very long time, but my body will continually degrade. I’ll catch horrible chest colds. I’ll get the stomach flu. And I’ll just plow through it towards my goal.

But everything has a cost, and the moment I let down my guard, the body just shuts down completely. Vacations and holiday breaks have been really bad for this, where the first 2-3 days I’m practically in a coma. What kind of deal is that for the people close to me?

The last time this happened was about 5 years ago. Since then, I’ve taken larger steps to self-regulate, to manage my stress levels. I take more time off to recharge, I divest and share the responsibility. It allows me to not work and trust that even though stuff wont move at my speed or even stall, at least it won’t regress. With the holiday break coming up, this year is a bit different. COVID has hit me something fierce, though a lot of comfort knowing my job is secure. I’m really looking forward to the break, and stepping away from work for a good bit. Sure, there are big files underway, things that have kept me awake late at night, but I’m confident I can disconnect for a period and enjoy what I have.

As the holidays approach for many of us, I do hope you can all enjoy and appreciate that time we do have. I’m conscious that this year is different for a bunch of reasons, and all the more reason to stop, think, and thank for what I do have. Wouldn’t be here without the people around me. Take care!

Development Work

A long while ago, I worked as a code monkey for a small company. Google searches indicate they are still operating, that’s oddly comforting. I’ve worked quite a few IT jobs in the past 20 odd years, and while the technology may have changed, the processes really haven’t all that much. SDLC is still the same idea, except now we call crunch things like “SCRUM” or “AGILE”. Back then, we just called it “get it done”. Everything was pretty fresh in the early ‘00s, and the pasty basement dwellers only needed a case of Coke to meet a deliverable.

Today’s world is different, it’s bigger for one. Coding is not a 1 person shop anymore, it’s dozens of people, if not hundreds. It’s commenting code, it‘s libraries, it’s devshops, it’s grey hacks, pen-tests, throttling, package controls and a dozen other things. Oh, and QA, the one thing we always never had time to do.

There’s a fair chunk of news about how companies treat their staff, and whether crunch comes with the game or not. Crunch exists for only one reason, bad management. Either they didn’t scope out the work properly, made assumptions with mitigations that weren’t accurate, or failed to manage the schedule and their bosses. I’ve been both impacted, and was the cause of crunch. It’s not that crunch “suddenly shows up”, it’s that priorities are not managed. You don’t realize with a month to go that you need yet another month, you defer making the decision until things are that red.

This topic is top of mind when comparing things like Cyberpunk 2077 and Hades, two games that were up for best game direction and somehow Cyberpunk 2077 won. I don’t begrudge CD Projekt delaying the game over so many years to deliver something, I think that’s the right approach. And that the developers share in overall profits is great. Added incentives against meta critic scores annoys me to no end (which are apparently ignored here, just given out). It’s the last 6 months of dev work, after 8 years of effort. It’s the last minute delays that no one is aware of until media lines are out. This isn’t some line worker, or supervisor. I doubt it’s even at the director level. This is top brass stuff finally making the right call, understanding that the years of effort making it are about to be undone with a buggy mess that will just mean more crunch to patch.

And let’s not forget what Rockstar went through to get RDR2 out the door. 80 hour work weeks are insane.

Then you look at Hades, where early access (beta) showed where they were going with no big expectations past that. Things came out when they were clean, and iteration was key. Staff has mandatory 20 days off a year, and then there’s a mental health check to manage workload. In short, the people matter more than the work, which obviously creates a better work environment, and therefore a better product.

Time Management

Who hasn’t tried to do something while completely exhausted? How often does that thing go the way you want it to? I’ve made TONS of mistakes while exhausted that took me longer to fix than if I had just come back to it later. Doing it once and a while, to get over some unexpected emergency (like helping someone manage their personal stuff), that is part of the job of being manager. Doing it consistently, over multiple weeks and months… you never get a chance to recover and will continue to make mistakes along the way.

Now, compound that over dozens of people, all working at much less than 100%, for long periods of time. Their heart is there (assuming they are compensated), but their brains aren’t.

Motivators

There are 2 big things that motivate people – money and pride. For most people, the money thing isn’t really motivating, because you’ll get paid on this game or the next. If you get a stock bonus, then you’ll get it eventually. Few people ever get a bonus for meeting a milestone, except executives. Few people ever get a bonus due to share performance, executives excepted as well. Now the reality is that cash flow is required to pay people to work on a game. No money in = no game development work done.

Pride though, that’s a big one. No one should be ok with delivering a stinker. They may feel powerless in that space (again, a failure of management) but they are not actively trying to make a bad experience. There’s not a chance any dev working on Anthem was looking at that product and going “yeah, that’s good”. But someone in that path decided it had to ship, no matter the state of affairs.

Money Matters

Tangent here for a sec. Codemasters is entertaining an offer from EA for 1.2 BILLION dollars. Take Two had offered just under 1 BILLION. Primarily for the Dirt and F1 franchises. That’s insane. Taking a step back, the EA bid is seen as defensive, since they already have a bunch of racing franchises – defensive meaning they will cut like crazy. Take Two would benefit from extra work, but no mistakes either, some serious cuts would follow. Any Codemaster employee that is not an executive (who is certainly going to gain from the stock purchase) is likely updating their resume right now. This is the business of entertainment.

Come Backs

There are only so many FF14, For Honor, and No Man’s Sky possible. Very, very rarely will you see something launch as a right mess and come back to some measure of success. Instead you’ll get lists like this one (I am still ticked that Infinite Crisis didn’t work). None of them died out of the gate, each one had a team working feverishly to do what should have happened before launch. Each one eventually came to the conclusion that the battle couldn’t be won – curious as to how many devs actually came to this conclusion before their bosses.

Solutions

Is there a single answer to all this? You’ll see “union” listed as top of pile, and certainly there’s some serious value here. Even just recognizing the “class of worker” would have huge impacts. Should games simply cost more? How does something like Hades or Into the Breach become profitable yet ME: Andromeda is a hot mess? Maybe the hype cycles need to be cut. Maybe the idea of meta critic bonuses have to be eliminated. Maybe the consumer needs to be educated and make smarter purchases? (If FIFA/NFL are any indication, I have a better chance of getting pregnant)

The real challenge here is that coders are often disposable. Entry level positions are everywhere, and an environmental artist graduates every 20 minutes. Someone coming into the market thinks it’s part of the deal to bleed themselves dry to get something out the door because they are competing against someone who will. It’s a right nightmare.

Talking about it is a major first step. Having a pile of good examples to share is another. Replacing the “old guard” is even more important, where people with different ideas come to lead. Understanding that our darling dev shops from yesterday are large conglomerates beholden to shareholders today is another. Buying stock of these companies and being part of the stakeholder process is another… they were a couple votes shy of cutting Bobby Kotick’s salary bonuses last time. Making personal purchase choices is always an option, but that lives in a grey zone that each person manages to their own delight.

Avengers Design

All looters have one purpose, make imaginary numbers go up through random drops, allowing for access to content that provides larger numbers. In some games, this is an inverted pyramid, where more content gets exposed as you get larger numbers, in others it’s a more narrowed view of options. In the MMO space, it’s often just raids. In the action genre, it’s rogue like dungeons. In shooters, it tends to be a mix of group focused content – probably due to the fact that consoles run the show.

Drops

Avengers manages drops in three methods. Completing a mission draws from a pool of items. Opening chests (which themselves have quality markers) drop gear. Finally, enemies drop items with higher odds on tougher opponents, like completing a waypoint. Let’s run through a good example.

Day of the Remains is an Inhuman mission that you eventually access in the main campaign. You can replay it, with a recommended power level of 25. You can certainly run it earlier, but you’re gonna die a lot! The mission has an chance for a chest at the start, a bunker with up to 4 chests to the left of the first waypoint, another bunker with up to 3 chests at the 2nd waypoint, 2 chests in locked rooms at the 3rd waypoint, and another chest near the main road (where you can rescue an Inhuman). My best runs have 12 chests and you never need to fire a shot. If you do end up fighting, then then 2nd, 3rd and 4th waypoints will all drop a few items (5 or so) and you get something for killing the 2 adaptoids at the end. If you need experience, then run the waypoints (<10mins). If you only need power levels (gear), then skip it all and focus on chests (~3 mins). I’ve run all the mission types, this is really the most efficient way. From start to end it takes less than 3 hours to reach 50/130.

Missions

These all focus on the concept of way points. If you skip one, then the next one won’t spawn. In the more open-world spaces, you’ll find some optional things to do – either a chest to get, an inhuman to free, or a tough enemy that guarantees a drop. In the tighter quarters, you only ever find locked chests.

The waypoints themselves focus on specific activities. A capture/hold event, destroy specific things, kill all enemies, kill elite enemies, or kill a specific target. In the open world, you have things between you and the objective that you can ignore. In the tighter spaces, the waypoint is often behind a console you need to interact with, behind a mess of enemies. Hives are “the” end game activity and you want to skip as much “trash” as possible to get to the next objective. Super advantage to flyers here, to a crazy degree. Major disadvantage to Hulk as he’s so big and gets stuck on stuff.

There are some missions that mix and match this stuff. The boss missions have you outside, then inside for a bit, then back outside for a large fight. Vaults have you outside trying to find the front door, then the rest is a mix of capture/hold mechanics against waves of enemies. They can vary in duration from something as low as 3 minutes to closer to an hour. It’s really great to have that level of variety.

But, not all things are created equal. Drops (as above) need triggers. If there aren’t chests, then you need a lot of waypoints. If a mission only has 1 waypoint and no chests… well you’re not going to get much out of it. Enter Hives.

Hives

I mentioned how action looters tend to have rogue like dungeons, and Avengers takes this as a foundation. Regular Hives have 8 floors to clear, and 1 waypoint to start the activity. You can die, but you restart a floor. Chests can spawn in the “trash” space between waypoints. For now, all Hives take place in the same building-basement tileset, which only have a dozen or so layouts. There’s less random here than say, Diablo 3.

Each waypoint will drop something, though there isn’t one that has better stuff than another. You can get a great drop from the first one and junk all the rest. They don’t take very long, maybe 10 minutes to clear.

Mega Hives are different. These are 48 floors (6 groups of 8 floors) where the entire squad needs to have power level 130. All 4 characters. In theory, this is a great incentive for multiplayer. The weird mechanic here, and only here, is that if you die you swap lead characters. All 4 characters die and you restart from floor 1. Each floor takes ~2 minutes to clear. In the best of cases, you’re here for 45 minutes. You don’t lose any of the gear, but you lose all the progress. And that final completion has guaranteed chance to drop an exotic (the best quality level item). The concept here is really solid, it’s that in practice Mega Hives are just too damn long and for most people you’re better off not playing with other people… AI companion deaths don’t count.

Load Times

This is an annoyance, as any waypoint trigger from a console generates an elevator cutscene. It doesn’t last long, maybe 5 seconds, but it really breaks the flow. You’ll get 2 of these for almost every Hive floor. It’s dumb, full stop. I am not against some loading, in particular for boss arena fights, but when you’re spending 20seconds in a corridor between loading screens, it makes you question why any of it exists. This is aside from the speech intros to every mission, which are not skipable. This effectively “raises the floor” of load times, so that you don’t end up zoning in and half the team has cleared most of the content, or has already moved to the next loading screen. Bigger areas would help a lot here, though I have to assume this is a resource issue in zone design.

Moving Forward

The core here is really quite good. The concept of Vaults and larger Hives seems ripe for interesting runs. They would need some additional tile sets so that it isn’t the same walls all the time, which is certainly some work but the assets are already mostly there. The space and underwater tile sets are underused to a crazy degree, and would be awesome here.

Having a way to modify gear stats, similar to Division, would be a huge relief from the stat waterfall currently in-game.

More content is certainly going to be nice to see. There are only 4 repeatable bosses (Abomination, Taskmaster, a giant spider tank, and a flying airship). MODOK, Super Adaptoid, and Monica are all campaign-only bosses. I wouldn’t say boss fights are a highlight, but it would be cool to have more variety. The whole “we can clone anything” gives a ton of room for this to work. Other mission types would be great too, Tachyon Rift is a nice change of pace.

The group content is going to need some big thinking hats to work out. I’m somewhat optimistic here given the extra time they took to deliver the Kate Bishop and the quality delivered. I guess a lot will depend on the AIM Secret Lab stuff and where that goes. If it works, then hopefully that gives incentive to play with other people. D3, Destiny, Division, Monster Hunter – they are all better with other people. Right now, there’s very little reason to do so here. Better superhero synergy would be one step. Better rewards with humans playing another. Tweaking the death penalties (it shortening Hives) could work. Seems like there are so many GOOD and BAD examples that it’s weird that Avengers took a middle ground path. Feels like this was a single player game with MP bolted on. Lots of good here, just needs a couple more pushes. So far, the pushes all appear to be in the right direction, which is great to see.

Avengers Post Campaign

I’ve been giving Avengers a fair shake lately. A lot of the parts work well, some things a bit less.

The thing with looter/shooters is that the leveling process is simply an excuse to tell a story. Once you’ve seen that story, the next playthrough is essentially a waiting game until you reach the end game. Some games make that process interesting and varied. Others make it so quick it doesn’t really matter. Avengers does the former, allowing you to do nearly any activity from level 10 to level 50. Some are much better for leveling than others, but the choice is there all the same. A pure grind, you’d likely knock 1-50 in less than 2 hours. Doing it in a more random fashion, double that. I think that’s reasonable.

The gearing portion, that part is a bit off kilter. Your power level (gear score) goes to 150, though for practical purposes, things stop dropping at 130. By the time you do hit 50, your power level is likely to be ~70. I was kinda hoping for that bridge to be smaller, given that you are then faced with the prospects of a pure grind to get those drops. And meaningless ones I should add. All you care about is that the power level is higher, doesn’t matter if it’s half the hit points. When you do reach 130, then gearing has meaning.

I’ll put it plainly, there are simply too many modifiers and combinations. You roll for base stats (melee, range, HP, super powers), then you roll for perks. There are crazy amounts of perks; faster super powers, damage types, power attacks, dodge bonuses, air juggles, gravity attacks, it’s the damn kitchen sink here. Add in item rarity and I’m really finding it too much. I will say that not a single one of the perks is bad, which is a major departure from Anthem. But it could really do with some serious pruning, or the ability to modify rolls from other pieces of gear.

I will say that in the general sense, power level is more important than actual rolls. I’ve got a level 50 Kate Bishop, and she’s at 137 power and rocking a 75/25 mix of ranged damage and HP. Her special powers are fairly meaningless for damage, moreso for control. Her scattershot (multi-arrow) attack does shock damage and that’s really all that matters in that build. She can clear anything, without much of a sweat. Chain stuns will take her down, but they’d take down anyone. Any optimization here would be cool, but of no real purpose. Maybe if they have some sort of timed Harm room runs it would matter?

I’ll have another post regarding the mechanics of the game, but suffice to say that what you see in the campaign is pretty much what you see all the way through. Half the combat is in the wide open, the other half in what are effectively chained dungeons. It works but favors some characters more than others.

Which I guess is the sort of irony here. I have never played a game that so faithfully recreates the superhero fantasy. Sure, there are bullet sponges, and dodging… but the Hulk plays like you’d think the Hulk would play! Thor swings the hammer just like you’d think he would. Ironman is all sarcasm and laser beams. That gives so much more wiggle room for this game to latch on! Any other IP and I’d be irritated by the small things. It is not getting old to have Cap throw his shield against 8 enemies and back to him.

Kamala deserves some mention. On the plus side, her character is extremely well written and acted. Fangirl + scared + wants to help people. Her quips are really great to hear. Mechanically, she’s the elongated man and the best team healer. Her movement feels like a comic book character, and it just works. Her support ability (the only real healer) means that she’s in the team no matter what too.

I’ve got a Tachyon Rift down (a mission with a timer and you lose health over time) and there’s a Mega Hive I have left later, once I have 3 more people at 50 and at 130 gear levels. This will be worthy of it’s own topic.

I do have some concern on the financial model here. It’s entirely cosmetic and the bar set with the Kate Bishop stuff is exceedingly high. The character kit is well thought out, and there’s voice work for every character. And it’s all free. The only way they make money is on cosmetics, and cosmetics are primarily entire player skins. Compare that to pretty much any other game where you customize bits (dyes, parts, etc.) there are limits here.

At some point I’ll do some multiplayer. I’m enjoying the ability to pause a bit too much right now, and the content doesn’t even remotely require it. Maybe the eventual Aim Labs will do that – a real raid would be neat. I’ve more than gotten my $30 out of this game so far, way better value than I had expected.

VGA

That meant something different when I was younger. But here we’re talking about the Video Game Awards. The thing that Geoff Keighly has somehow managed to both create and monopolize to a degree I didn’t think possible. I’m amazed that the geek/fanboy in him still exists and that corporate culture has not crushed that into a robot mess (Hi Zuck!). That the VGA are able to recognize achievement in a genre that’s often put to the side is great. People put in a lot of time and love into creating these games.

This year went ahead with COVID around, so entirely virtual. Another cool bit is that there are no cable deals here, full stream to everyone. It recognizes that the audience is not 65. Awards interspersed with trailers for upcoming games. Imagine watching the Oscars and you had trailers for new movies? Somehow that works here. Again smart in that attention span stuff, people watch the awards themselves AND get to see new stuff. Their retention must be quite high.

Announcements

Some interesting bits here (Videos in link).

  • Perfect Dark has a sequel, which is neat. I played MORE of that than I did GoldenEye, mostly due to the crazy weapons and decent bot AI. 2 player games were awesome/
  • Dragon Age 4 had a trailer. As per a previous post, I am not bullish on BioWare pulling this off. I don’t get why you think setting has any bearing on this series… people have spent hundreds of hours there. They get it. Halo ads aren’t focused on trees or walls.
  • Sephiroth is going to be in Smash Brothers. I wish I understood fighting game’s fascination with adding weird characters. MK11 is certainly in this boat.
  • There’s a new Mass Effect, which seems to be set just after ME3. I am hopeful they learn that this story has to focus on characters rather than the world, like all good sci-fi does.
  • ARK2 has a voice cast?!? I don’t get it.
  • Back4Blood is from the Left4Dead team, and a modern take on it. This should be neat.
  • Open Roads looks to be an exploration game, sort of in the frame of KR Zero, or Edith Finch. A lot of games try this genre, not many succeed. Fingers crossed here!
  • Returnal seems an interesting mix. Groundhog Day (the Bill Murray flick) is often seen as a psychological horror movie (he’s in the loop for like 100 years), so throw some sci-fi and there ya go!
  • A few games are getting big updates (or sequels, like meatboy 2) in the next few weeks!

So nothing terribly earth shattering in this space, in particular in the AAA space. We knew they were being worked on, either officially or not. None of them have timeframes.

Awards

Last of Us Part 2 won game of the year, which is less important to me than the list of candidates. Hades, Ghost of Tsushima are also on the list and NOT sequels.

The other categories are filled with sequels. Doom, Animal Crossing, FF7 remake, Half-life, Ori, Resident Evil. All amazing games, and when you have the IP down pat, then you can focus on polish. There are 3 PS exclusives (Last of Us, Ghosts of Tsushima and Miles Morales), which continues the trend of quality from that shop. If ever there was a motivation for XBOX to buy dev shops, this should be a clear indicator.

I love how a 20 year old remake (THPS 1+2) won. How messed up is the sports genre that this happened? Among Us won 2 categories, even though it launched in June 2018. And somehow Halo Infinite was on the list for most anticipated… considering it was supposed to launch a month ago, that’s odd. Could almost make a joke about Cyberpunk here…

Solid shout outs to the smaller games, like Kentucky Route Zero, Spiritfarer, Tell Me Why… These games rarely get much exposure (well… KRZ certainly is on a bunch of must play lists) and they can be a challenge to find. Steam’s content quality issues (9,400 games launched so far this year!) make is all but impossible for a person to sort through, making everyone reliant on curators. The VGA are able to highlight some diamonds in the mess of muck out there.

All told, a good event that recognizes some very hard working individuals to get stuff in front of our eyeballs, and engage us for hours, if not days. While I’d love to see less AAA on these lists and more indie games here, that’s an industry growth issue.

And if my dozens of posts on the subject were not enough, then knowing that Hades had multiple nominations and wins should scream – GO PLAY IT!

Marvel Avengers

I mentioned that this had gone on sale, and that it would probably be a decent pick for the solo content. So I picked it up to give it a shot. I don’t have regrets, though some questions.

I don’t get how any game is launched in 2020 with a load time that’s measured in minutes before you start playing. I have a solid rig, it’s installed on NVMe and there’s really little I can do to optimize that. Yet Avengers takes at least 90s from pressing the icon until it loads. And each mission can take 20-60s to load up. How can Monster Hunter World, a 3 year old game, have load times less than 20s yet this thing (and plenty of others, including Anthem) can’t get this fixed. Menus and loading screens are not gameplay, and there’s WAY too much of it here. Optimizations are still required.

On the plus side, the moment to moment gameplay is impressive. Iron Man shoots lasers, Thor shoots lightning, Hulk smashes, and Black Widow… well I still don’t get how she’s an Avenger. The game looks great, the interiors and exteriors have some variety, there’s plenty to do, and there’s enough difference between the characters to give meaning, and enough similarity so that you’re not relearning all the time.

The new addition of Kamala Khan as Ms Marvel is terrific, pulling off the fangirl vibe that feels authentic. The gradual increase of the team works, and the general banter is pretty cool. Gear is, as you would expect, an absolute horror show with no purpose other than seeing a number go up. I’m sure this changes at later levels. The campaign itself is rock solid, hitting the right beats with next to no padding. Color me impressed.

Speaking of which, the core campaign lasts ~10 hours or so. The way it’s delivered splits time across multiple heroes, so that by the end of that 10 hours, your character levels meander between 5 and 10. Of a total of 50. Getting each to 50 means playing a bunch of various missions and really, grinding it out. There’s other content, but not to the depth of the main campaign. Heck, when you do end the campaign, the next quest it gives you requires level 50/140 power. It’s a bit like leaving Westfall in WoW and the next quest is to solo Sargeras. Uh, ok?

The meh is the combat mechanics being quite dependent on active combat, which is a fancy way of saying you need to learn when to parry and when to dodge. The timing here is so much better than Assassin’s Creed it’s not funny. It doesn’t feel at times like a reskin of Lara Croft (loading times and all), with button mashing QTEs. I’m pretty sure at higher levels and expanded gear/skills the mechanics improve. For now, it just sucks to be 1shot because you didn’t dodge someone attacking you from behind. The vertical space is well used, and it doesn’t feel like a huge penalty to take a non-flyer. The plot is pulled straight out of a comic book, and the final couple bits with MODOK are really well done. It feels epic, which is what you’re looking for.

I’ll keep plugging away, getting someone to 50 (likely Thor). Kate Bishop launched today, as a new character. If I had to guess, I’d figure the game stabilization period is somewhat over, now it’s about content and optimization. Clearly I am not going to do 48 floors of combat, where death means restarting from floor 1. I’d expect there are plenty of heat maps as to where people are spending their time, and dev cycles to focus on that. I’m far enough away to be happy with what’s there now. If DCUO can still rake in millions of dollars, you really have to be trying to mess this up.

A special note on Kate Bishop being added this week to the game. Ashly Burch is awesome, and the writers took this to the right spot. The banter between her and Tony is golden! It helps that her bow skill set is fun to use – tons of mobility, great ranged damage, and impressive crowd control options. Her core mission is about 3 hours or so, and I enjoyed every bit of it. If this is the type of content that comes out with each new character, Avengers is going to stay installed for a long time.

And all that for $30. I do think it was a good purchase, with a potential for it being as great one.

Open vs Focused

From my older D&D days, there was often some disagreement on the size of any given adventure. Not in the overall arc, but in the size of the events. Way back when, my DM loved to throw very long and drawn out battles to test the player’s mettle. For those not familiar, in 3.5e, some battles could take hours to resolve due to the number of rolls required. Larger rooms with tons of enemies, or doors where goblins poured from, then traps and the like… it was a glorious mess! It also meant that after each fight, we had to rest, since all our skills had been depleted. (One of the fun perks from 4e was addressing this issue.)

The point here is that the DM preferred open spaces with multiple vectors of combat. There wasn’t much linear activity, the walls just seemed to ooze bad guys. Combat meant depending on the players staying close to each other, and moving as a group. Let me tell you that organizing 4 players moving in unison is a major pain. And it’s not like you can hide when the room is 20×20 – or worse, in some sort of open cave/field/forest.

I do remember playing with another group where their DM was all about hallways. You’d open a door, things would spawn out of that room and you were better off just hiding in the hallway letting the shield tank everything. It was quite jarring when compared to my normal group.

It’s interesting looking at today’s game design and their approach to encounter design. The player component is relatively the same across all of them, things are locked behind cool downs. Resource management is all but gone, except in the immediate sense of some sort of charge/discharge format. That “standard” means a more even footing when looking at the actual encounter.

There are still games that are target based, either through tab-targeting or turn-based activity. You select a target, move to them (if needed), and then “do the thing”. More and more are action based, meaning that you’re attacking in the vicinity of something, and hoping to hit something. This is more complex, as hit detection is ultra important, “magnetic locking” so that you aim in the right space, and the whole 3D orientation is key. Something like Destiny works because it factors where the player starts an action, and where the target is when the action finishes, with a whole lot of padding for errors. Valhalla has a really generous hit detection, for you and the enemies. Dark Souls is the opposite, where it’s extremely precise. Very different experiences.

Then there’s the actual space used for the encounter. Target-based combat tends to be in tighter locales, because movement is the real resource to manage. Ranged can’t hide, and melee need to get between targets as fast as possible. Divinity 2 excels when the rooms are tiny. When they get too big, it’s a real mess to get to any target. WoW is almost entirely tunnel vision, until you get to a boss room. Dungeons are made for 5 players, raids for many more… so space is designed to allow people to be about the room without too much stacking. It’s interesting going back into something like Ulduar now and see that design compared to pretty much everything that followed. How

Action games though… they hate small rooms. The challenge in most of those games is about throwing as much at you, from as many directions as possible, and seeing what happens. There may be obstructions, sure. But they are tactical, in the sense that they provide defence. Line of sight that bullet barrage, climb the tower to get a better view. They also tend to avoid the concept of AI-targets, where enemies prioritize their targets. It’s a free for all, and generally why this model excels in the pure action/shooter genre. It’s also why defensive options in action games are really quite hard to manage, especially in multi-player games. It’s really hard to replicate something like Dark Souls/Ghost of Tsushima with lag in an online setting – mind you, For Honor figured this out.

There are exceptions to these, certainly. DOOM is all about atmosphere, so the locations tend to be ultra-cramped. Fallout 2/3 are often about open spaces. It’s neat when you play a game and it subverts those expectations, and does so with quality. Now for the day where I play a game, find an open location with a bunch of healing stuff before hand, and it’s NOT a boss.