Terra Nil

Most builder games have you break down nature to add technology. Nature is viewed as chaotic and random, whereas technology is clean, orderly, and proper. Civilization and SimCity are the grandfathers of that particular mindset, and truthfully, it is often the foundation of most urban engineer educations. Yet, it’s 2021 and this planet is having a hell of a time supporting us. We are going to be gone long before it. So perhaps our hubris that we somehow mastered the complexity of millions of years of evolution and balance is a tad off…

Ok, weird rant aside, there’s an interesting game making some social rounds on rebuilding greenery. We’ve seen a few of these in the past, though mostly relegated to terraforming Mars in some fashion. (And then, only terraforming so that it can be torn down and technology can take its place.) The game in question is Terra Nil, which is a rather small demo you can find on Steam.

Small in the sense of less than a gig in size, and effectively just the tutorial without the ability to save. You get to see the large brush concepts here, and a “full” playthrough is about 20 minutes. As much as it’s a game, there are metrics and bars and whatnot, it also feels more like building a zen garden.

There are no people in the demo, and all the technology in use has as a sole purpose to improve the expansion of nature. I used a solar dish to burn a field, to make ash, in order to grow a giant lush forest. I’ve dug trenches to increase the sprawl of water and then turned them into marshes.

The rules of the game are pretty simple, and the tutorial is more like “here’s things, figure it out” than actually helpful. But games are more than a set of buttons. The best of them put you in the conductor’s seat for a private journey that feels self directed. A movie where you can’t really see the edges of the set. There’s a spark here of that, some potential. Who knows what we’ll get in the end.

Mario Party

There are few games that can break up siblings like Mario Party. Back in the day we had an N64, and we’d huddle around the TV with my dad and play whatever multiplayer game was available. Wave Race, Mario Kart, GoldenEye, and Perfect Dark all got tons of playtime. They each were digestible pieces of excitement. My dad really loved the racing ones, I’d like to think it was more because they were truly 3D and he could follow.

But Mario Party – that thing I’m sure has caused more divorces than the set up of IKEA furniture.

The game concept is simple. You roll a die, move around a gameboard, collect coins and stars, then at the end of each round play a simple mini game to collect more coins. Social boardgames are exactly that. There are highs and lows, and some crazy trashtalking. Heck, sometimes you just get impressed at some folks ability. The games generally last for an hour, which is just the right amount of time.

Where Mario Party moves the needle is in the competitive and almost backstabbing efforts players can take. The mini-games are either 1v1v1v1, 2v2, or 3v1. You’re never really in a team for more than a minute or so. And they are always competitive – like you can knock another player off the map. In the older games you’d often team up with another player, and then one would betray the other because, you know, there can only be one.

The board also allows players to steal coins and stars from other players. Coins are easy enough to get, and they are a method to acquire items or stars (10 per). The player with the most stars wins, if people are tied, then the amount of coins determines. The original Mario Party has so many catch-up mechanics, and gave out stars like candy that you could easily see 3 or 4 stars move between players per turn. I can’t count how many times I thought I had an insurmountable lead on the last turn, only to end up losing because my stars were poached. Local multiplayer + going from lead to 3rd place = outrage and laughter.

My daughter got Mario Party for the Switch, so we gave it a shot just the two of us. It’d been quite a while since my last go, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. We opted for the Bobomb board, and 10 turns on normal.

Countdown completes and you’re in the middle, say goodbye to half your coins!

It’s interesting to see all the new bits they added to the board, so that dice control is more than just rolling the biggest number possible (it still is for a LOT mind you). Being able to add more die to your pool is pretty cool too! The size of the board feels good, and tons of branching paths. I recall this being a challenge in the original, where you could easily end up continually on the wrong end of the board (hence the catch up stuff). The mini-game variety is good, with a lot of close calls. The 3v1 games are still the highlight to me, because the odds are just not in anyone’s favour. I do have a general dislike for the rumble games…

The game still has catch up mechanics, my daughter was given a +5 die roll item in the last 3 turns and she used it to go from last to first. I lost a star to an NPC. The final score had me with 3 stars winning the game. That’s a whole lot less than the 8-12 stars from previous games. It does mean there’s less “stealing” wins here, and puts a whole lot more importance on each turn being successful. There wasn’t a point where there was more than a 1 star difference between any player… and I don’t recall that being the case before.

The winning part wasn’t the cool bit. It was really the reactions we both had for each mini-game. Some were mundane enough, others were both of us at the end of our chairs, or standing up with the tongue out. The classic hot potato game is a highlight of craziness. We both had smiles for an hour and had a blast getting all the way through.

I can see some fun games nights ahead. I keep getting impressed by the social aspect that Nintendo somehow keeps bottled up. Guess that’s why Mario Kart 8 has sold something like 35m copies – there’s just something about playing with other people and it not being about headshots that is missing in gaming. I’m oddly enthusiastic about a new Mario Golf!

Get the Nintendo Lawyers

Super short one, just pure amazement at the brass set here.

I get that mobile app stores are chocked full of scams and reskins of other games. It’s marginally better than the cess-pool that is Steam. Any search for an easy dollar I guess.

Check this one out:

I’ve spent well over 100 hours playing Hades. It won numerous Games of the Year awards. It is built on the SuperGiant art DNA. There’s artistic license and influence, then what is effectively a cut and paste. It’s 2021… there’s no way that something like this isn’t going to get bad press. The only other game I can see from this developer is a FarmVille clone (there have be 10s of thousands now) that uses Disney princesses as avatars – heck even the Disney castle is in their material. Hence the brass set comment above.

The lawyers are certainly looking at this, but it’s a weird time here where you kind of would be interested to see what the Nintendo or Disney lawyers would do here.

ME 3 Thoughts

I finished up the campaign the other night and, as with most games, I have a couple thoughts I need to write out.

First off, ME32 has aged really well. It’s 9 years old, but would still be a decent new release today. There are many games that are a zeitgeist, where the only fit in their time period. ME3 is lucky in a sense that it was a refinement of as-new model of action and RPG mergers. And honestly, it looks better than Andromeda.

It would be hard to ignore the social impacts of ME3, where the gamers tried to take ownership of creative direction of a game, and the developer conceded. Without access to the ‘non extended cut’ version of ME3, it’s hard today to have a real apples to apples conversation about the changes. Instead we have to remember through wiki entries, where the original launch had quite stringent requirements on what options were presented to players, and then what the consequences where of those options. Not decided on actual choices in the game, but frankly by the number of planet scans you had performed. Curing the Genophage still has no actual impact on any gameplay, or ending. Saving Miranda in ME2 doesn’t change the fact that her father still does the experiments in ME3. The illusion of choice rears its head in fierce fashion in ME3.

Tangent Time!

  1. Asimov’s Foundation series is celebrated because of the ideas it brought to the table without the need for violence. It celebrated diplomacy and scientific prowess to solve galactic issues, and generally looked down upon the military complex (pre-quels aside). The series ends with the creation of Galaxia (a planet where all organisms are interlinked) and the merger of AI and organics (Olivaw). The concept here is that the resolution of differences is only accomplished by merger rather than annihilation or assimilation. That sociopolitical concept is still a challenge today, what with diversity feeling like a 4 letter word. Yet the concept has been essential in sci-fi for nearly 70 years.
  2. Final Fantasy has a habit of a last minute bait and switch on the villain, where 95% of the time you think the ultimate baddie is say, Kuja, but in reality it’s the essence of death, Necron, who was the bad guy. No setup, they just pop up and that’s the bad guy.

Back on Track

ME3 tries to take this concept and expand upon it, where you are provided the choices of Destroy (all synthetics die, but will certainly be re-created and cause a war), Control (which is arguably Dune 2.0), or Merge (synthetic and organic merge of sorts). The challenge with this line is that none of the options are earned, doubly so if you have not played the Leviathan missions.

ME1 is about the Reaper threat to destroy the galaxy. The reasons are not provided aside from it being a cycle. When the game ends, you haven’t stopped the threat, simply delayed it.

ME2 has little to do with that specific threat, but the proxies around it. It’s a borderline McGuffin, with a weird twist at the end for a human/reaper hybrid. But that’s not the story. The real story is the rebirth of Sheppard and the building of a team to explore the galaxy’s various internal threats. You fight political battles way more than Collector/Reaper battles. Heck, try naming the bad guy here?

ME3 merges these storylines into a concept of unifying the galaxy in order to fight the repears head-on. There are no compromises possible, that was made clear in the first two games and most of this one. There are no alternatives, it’s entirely focused on using the Crucible (which you don’t know what it does until you use it) and the Catalyst (which you don’t know what it is until the final mission). Up until the last minute, the only option you can think of is destroying the Reapers.

Then you learn that no matter what choice you have made, at any point in the entire game, none of them have any bearing on the larger choice. Instead, it’s a point system that determines what choices are present, and the scale of those choices (either Earth survives or doesn’t). It’s a curve ball, with no ability to prepare for the choice, limited understanding of the impacts (Control in particular), and up until the extended cut, no real understanding of why these choices exist in the first place.

There are hundreds of published sci-fi stories every year. Few of them are good, less so great. It’s really hard! Without a clear plan, and lots of effort creating the necessary breadcrumbs, it’s almost impossible to craft a complex story with a satisfying ending. I mean, look at GoT Season 8.

Even after all these years, the ending of ME3 still doesn’t work.

Paragon/Renegade

Just quickly here, the Paragon/Renegade improvements of ME2 are mostly removed here. There’s really only 1 meaningful choice here (genophage) and the rest is a tough wash. There’s only a few trigger commands available, and they are either giving a handshake or shooting someone who is about to shoot you. It’s a weird reversion to the ME1 model. Of note, the final decision you have to make is based on having explored every single Investigate conversation option across the entire game with the Illusive Man.

The Good

Enough with the bad. There’s a lot of good here.

The inventory is a great improvement on ME2, where you have tons of options and customizations. While there are simple stat upgrades, some changes are substantial (like shooting through shields). It’s powerful without feeling like its tedious.

The powers are also much improved, with faster cooldowns, more choice for a given power (e.g. recharge or damage). There are multiple enemies where fighting with powers is tons more effective than any weapon attack would be. This is a clear precursor to Anthem, and it feels really good. I will say that Liara’s Singularity power (with tons of recharge boosts) is crazy OP.

The fights themselves are generally improved, though a few too many ‘wave’ based fights. The cover mechanics work really well, and the enemy AI is generally decent. Guns have the right feel, the aim is solid, and the physics add weight to everything.

The companions are more integrated into the overall story, rather than being simple DPS items. Well maybe not James, who’s as useful as lips on an elbow. Javik in particular provides some much needed context in many quests, which further solidifies that he was pulled out of the game on purpose. It’s great to see them are more than window dressing.

The majority of quests (N7 aside) are well written and structured. The final Krogan mission with Mordin is the highlight. The DLC quest chains are a real highlight, with multiple steps and great scenery. Leviathan is foundational to the overall story, Omega is a real rollercoaster with a well-written bad girl, and Shore Leave is pretty much Ocean’s Eleven in game form. Fine, in the grand scheme they are meaningless, but on their own, they act as a sort of quality anthology.

I’d be remiss to not mention the audio. The bass reverb sounds of the reapers works to add some awesome atmosphere. The Hans Zimmer influence here is evident, with strong use of contrasting sounds. It’s an interesting mix where a video game has clearly influenced visual media in such a large form.

Residual

It’s impressive what Mass Effect was able to do. The series is a true landmark, where the sequels attempted to build on the prior ones. You can trace a lot of games and media to what was delivered here, and the Legendary edition is without question the best way to experience it all. Fine, the last 10 minutes did not deliver on the promise, but it would have been a miracle if it had. (Dark is the only thing that comes to mind that has ever succeeded in this.)

I really enjoyed my playthrough.

Linear vs Open RPGs

Still in the ME vein of things, given that it’s the series I’m waist deep in. A reminder that the games came out in 2007, 2010, 2012 and then 2017. Why do those dates matter?

  • 2007 had Bioshock and The Witcher
  • 2010 had Dragon Age and Fallout New Vegas
  • 2012 had XCOM, Dragon’s Dogma (Skyrim was 2011)
  • 2017 had Divinity 2, Breath of the Wild, and Horizon

Story

Those are potential markers for what the gaming landscape was at the time. ME1 didn’t have much competition, starting a new genre at the time. Also explains why the game was linear, and the options were really lower quality than the main line. Bioshock was a better game in nearly all aspects.

ME2 is different. Dragon Age and FO:NV were open games. ME2 could not take a linear approach in the larger context, it lined up better with Dragon Age in the sense of solid side quests and regular priority quests for major beats. ME2 worked because is was way less buggy than New Vegas, and mechanically a whole lot tighter than Dragon Age.

ME3 went the buffet route, with a journal chocked full of things to do and map markers to cover it all. It’s not Ubisoft’s map-icon-palooza but it’s the least directed of all the storylines. The result of this is that may of the quests are not bound into the larger story, which is much different than ME2. It’s further ironic as the quests in ME3 actually keep track of choices in ME2, but the results of these quests don’t matter other than a magical number. While there’s plenty to do (and it’s often great quality), it doesn’t tell a cohesive story.

ME: Andromeda… that doubled down on the buffet and open world. It’s really hard to draw a straight line through that game and see where the story goes. The other games listed all have this similar issue, where there’s just so much to do that it’s hard to see why it even matters. Divinity 2 has the joy of interconnected quests, though lacks a larger narrative pressure. BotW pretty much ignores the quest for the sake of exploration. Horizon actually has only a few core quests (which are inconsistent), then a hundred+ icons to fill out. In my personal take of ME:A, I struggled to see the purpose of the game. There are what appears to be meaningful quests, yet they don’t go anywhere (the AI quest is a highlight of this).

Action

I think this bears mention in that the mechanics affect the storytelling mechanic. If the story is directed, and somewhat linear, then the action itself is often reflective. Bioshock is focused, one room at a time. ME1 is the same, where it’s mostly narrow corridors. ME2 is also quite narrow, with a few side rooms for extra loot.

ME3 is where things start to change. Now you’re regularly facing waves of enemies in larger battle arenas. There are multiple paths everywhere and most zones are outside. While this looks amazing (truly), it compounds the lack of story focus. Progress is a blob, where you survive a way rather than reaching an objective. Sure, you get some war points to help a weird progress bar (who is counting, the Reapers?!) but there’s no story element that binds it.

ME: Andromeda just looks like it gave up. You’re flying everywhere, battles are almost entirely in extremely large environments, making it impractical to have close combat fights. The crappy planet quests of ME1 in the exact same small rooms at least had you move from one room to another. ME:Andromeda has no bounds, no real checkpoints. You just get a popup (or holster weapons automatically) when battle is over. I have to assume that BioWare took the ME3 criticism to heart and just avoided all the hard parts (coherent story) and opted for diving on the good stuff (combat).

I have to point out that ME:Andromeda is fundamentally the same as Anthem, in terms of combat mechanics. Given that game had no story and focused on exploration… well that worked.

What Is Mass Effect ?

My personal thought is that Mass Effect is KOTOR without lightsabers. Aliens, super powers, planets, ships, epic journey… that’s Star Wars. KOTOR is good because of the story, the combat isn’t exactly stellar. Mass Effect 1 was an interesting attempt to create a new complex story in a sci-fi setting, with generally poor combat (the queuing of 4 abilities is straight outta D&D). It resonates because at the time, the choices in the dialogue were novel and appeared impactful.

Mass Effect 2 tightened up the combat and added more meat to the story. It’s only a handful of mandatory quests, and a plethora of loyalty missions. It works even more because the story choices are more varied. The trigger events is a great touch, and allows for a nuanced playthrough. The final suicide mission is still a standout 11 years later. The world grew here.

Mass Effect 3 has a challenge when it comes to the impacts of decisions. Rather than the story being impacted you have a number in a menu that goes up – a menu that is only accessible in one place in the game. The quests are really quite good, full of great beats. The punchlines just don’t land. Which I can see why this would have been so hard, there were dozens of loose ends at the end of ME2 that players expected to close. The world ends here.

Story, choice, impact. The combat is the context. That’s Mass Effect to me.

Future Mass Effect

I doubt that ME4 could ever reproduce the game of the moment that ME2/3 had. Legendary really does a bang up job of showcasing yesteryear’s design choices and how they do or do not compare to today. ME works with a fundamental sense of exploration, of new, of today’s problems in a different setting. Why have a sci-fi setting if not for this reason?

It could try to follow God of War’s more linear approach, but that would require a crazy narrowing of focus which I don’t think BioWare knows how to do. It could try something closer to Baldur’s Gate 3 (which interestingly is not them) where it’s an open and complex work. I don’t think it has the capacity to tell complex intertwined stories like it once did. And it would be nice for them to tell a story that wasn’t based on some ancient race and a galactic threat.

It clearly doesn’t have the ability to deliver mechanically complex games. Sorry, let me rephrase that as the distinction is important. The management team at BioWare is not able to manage their project schedules to ensure the developers have sufficient time to apply the necessary polish.

I have truly no idea what type of game Mass Effect 4 would be.

Story DLC Woes

The really great part about Legendary is that you get all the DLC right off the bat. This has no real meaning for ME1. ME2 brings a lot to the table

  • Kasumi is a new companion with an interesting loyalty mission
  • Lair of the Shadow Broker, which adds some lore bits to the story
  • Overlord, another story-based DLC with a tad less punch
  • Arrival, which has you solo in some stealth sections (and is therefore not fun)

All of these came out after ME2 launched, and aside from Kasumi, can be played post-suicide mission. This helps because ME2 doesn’t really end, similar to The Two Towers. It’s all open on the threat to come in ME3. It allows them to be a sort of intermission between ME2 and ME3.

ME3 has 3 main DLC.

  • From Ashes is the day 1 DLC with the Prothean companion
  • Omega has you team up with Aria to take back Omega over a long series of quests to prep for the final battle
  • Leviathan adds a crazy amount of lore to the game, like the Silmarillion did to LotR.

I’ll quickly pick on From Ashes for a minute. This DLC was clearly carved out of the main game – the companion you get is integrated with speech into nearly every quest, and is of the sole race you’ve been trying to find for 2 games. It was insulting at launch not to have this included and the reason I didn’t buy any ME3 DLC.

Omega is weird one that adds a lot of side content and some war points to the final battle. It looks truly amazing, and I could always use more Aria. It’s also one of the only missions in all of ME3 where the Renegade path is actually preferred. It doesn’t add to the the larger story and is entirely optional. You’re not missing out if you don’t play it (but you really should.)

Leviathan I had skipped on principle. I had heard some good things, but given that it was primarily focused on lore, why go after that after you’ve closed the final chapter? The quest itself is a mouse chase of sorts, with some interesting set pieces for combat (the water planet in particular clearly inspired Star Wars ep: 9). Spoilers I guess? Leviathan are the predecessors to everything. They created the Catalyst, who then created the Reapers in their image. Each cycle creates a new reaper, and there are thousands of them. Cycles aren’t exactly 10 years long in ME, more in the thousands. It’s so foundational to the understanding of the world around you, yet you get it after you complete the game. Legendary gives it to you at the start, where it clearly should have been from the start.

Don’t tell me that’s not an awesome sight!

Post-Credit Story

For a long time, games had a finite end. If you wanted more, you got an expansion pack that added a new chapter (e.g. Diablo 2: Lord of Destruction). Adding things to the middle of the story just didn’t happen, though mostly due to coding issues. It’s always easier to add to the outside of a construct than the middle – really just like renovations. It’s often easier to build a new house than renovate an existing one.

There are certainly plenty of games that have a mode post-credits. Bethesda and Rockstar excel at this. These games more easily integrate story DLC, if that story doesn’t directly impact the main game storyline. You can add a new mission with a new boss, as long as it doesn’t reference the main one. XCOM2 has a lot of this, yet the quality here is a challenge due to the difficulty scaling of combat.

And yet, the games that have a finite end, where the credits roll and you’re done, those have serious problems with DLC. Final Fantasy 13-2 addressed this by launching the DLC along with the game (see From Ashes as to why this wasn’t well received), so that it would integrate well. Final Fantasy 15 had story DLC (episodes) 6 months after launch, which added lore for each companion. FF15 sold nearly 9m copies, so the market for DLC was there. The episodes were launched, but some re-org in SQUENIX stopped all future DLC… though let’s be frank here, if the DLC met objectives there would have been more.

ME3 suffers from this challenge, where the player base is substantial, yet the story is clearly at an end. Launching DLC after the game is complete, no matter how interesting, doesn’t make sense. Folks have spent 20-40 hours getting through a rollercoaster of events, 100+ if you consider all the trilogy. There’s a sense of closure, and not much interest in opening up that door once again. At least in the larger population sense.

Game Trend

It’s interesting to see the larger game trends that Mass Effect created or expanded upon. It’s hard to explain how important ME was to gaming in the west – we didn’t really have anything remotely close to an action RPG at the time. Play ME3 and then Outriders… you’re going to see extremely similar models.

You’re also going to see how story DLC is handled, or not I suppose. Games with a finite end rarely go through the efforts of any story DLC. Heck, even games that don’t have a finite end don’t want to mess with the gold (e.g. God of War) as they know it’s never going to hit 100%, and probably not even hit 20%. If they ever want to add a new game to the series, then you have to go in with different player bases and can’t rely on the prior DLC content to have been experienced.

Mass Effect Andromeda didn’t have any (nor any sales of ‘season passes’ common for EA), which is a fairly decent bookmark to this topic.

Given the quality of the story DLC for ME3 and the overall apathy for the content, I would like to think this is the best outcome forward. If it’s important, put it in the main game. If not, then wait for a sequel.

ME2 : The Illusion of Choice

I completed the final suicide mission in ME2 the other night, and as with all other times, everyone survived. The largest playthrough difference here is that my Renegade score was nearly at par with my Paragon. In the aggregate I was a middle of the road player, yet in the absolute sense, everyone survived and I had Samara, which is objectively the same result as a pure Paragon run. This made me think more about the choices I had made in the game, and how they did or did not impact the end result.

This is arguably different than ME1, where the decision points are typically tied to major events and results in of themselves. ME2’s Paragon/Renegade approach is in the method by which you achieve a result, it’s a lot different.

I do want to state early on that I am fan of the ME2 approach.

Design

As children, most of us were exposed to “choose your own adventure” books. It felt like you were creating your own story. The truth is that someone else built some blocks and put a stream of logic decisions to connect them. Designing anything is exactly this process, games included.

Putting a consequential choice in a game means that you need to build at least 2 outcomes, either A or B. And then you need to keep track of that decision for the rest of the game. If you chose to let Kaidan die in ME1, Ash is there instead for ME2 and ME3. Context around that choice has impacts as well, and it is entirely common to have one decision impact a future one. The early Fallout RPGs had actions in one setting impact those in another, and even had to account for the non-linear quest design. Adding impactful choices can become extremely complex and if done incorrectly breaks immersion.

Divinity 2 does a superb job in this, yet also limits the impacts. The impacts of the choices only affect the act in which the choice takes place. You can kill a quest giver in one quest, blocking other quests. The influence of those choices are felt all along the game, in that your reputation may open other doors.

Long story short, the design approach of choice can become unmanageable.

Flavour

An alternative approach is to add choice in the approach of an outcome, rather than the outcome itself. Saren at the end of ME1 will die, no matter what choice you take. Either you talk him out (saving some battle time), or you go guns blazing. Or perhaps the larger goal is to reach the end of a building, and you can either go through the window, the main floor, or the elevator. In the larger picture, the major beats are all there, but perhaps you reach them in a different order.

Now, I realize that ME3 took a lot of flack on this because the final culmination of all these choices were mostly ignored, or perhaps the view that the choices were not reflective of the types of choices presented earlier. I’ll get to that when I complete ME3 and refresh the idea.

For ME2 however, there is plenty of flavor on each and every quest, which allows for some customization of the story, without impacting the major items. The Samara/Morinth choice doesn’t change any story beats, it changes the skin of the squadmate.

Compare it to something like Hades, where there is dialogue and events which can add flavor to future events. The devs have some interesting bits on how they keep track of all these events, allowing for continual new items to show up in the story. None are actual choices in the measured sense, but more related to recognition of experienced events – checkboxes of sorts. The devs were clear that this added a significant amount of complexity to their design, and yet, they are the items that add the most amount of charm to the game.

Game Metrics

The meaningful points of change in the game are not explicitly related to an in-game choice, or more accurately they are reflective of a lack of choice. Success on the suicide mission is entirely predicated on the amount of optional content you’ve completed. The 3 ship upgrades are required to complete the non-interactive entry to the final mission. Miss some, people die.

The final sets of mission success is based on you having completed the loyalty missions for given characters. You need to send a tech expert in the vents. If you have not completed the loyalty quests, anyone you send will die. If you have, and send a non-tech person, they die. There are 4 such “choices” in this final quest. Since these are end-of-game choices, they impact the story but not the final part of the game. Further, these choices are reflected as influence in ME3, less about changing the larger outcomes. In this sense, its more like Divinity 2.

The Illusion

The best choice is the one that’s predetermined, or the false choice. Best in the objective sense, where it can be anticipated, measured, controlled, and managed. The element of chaos is persistent, and when you purposefully inject that chaos, you create work for everyone. There’s the reality of choice paralysis. How many types of toothpaste do we really need? – which is a sort of false choice since it’s all the same company with a slightly different flavor, hoping you buy multiple.

Really think about it. How many truly impactful decisions do you make in a day? In a year? Bioshock Infinite was an entire game on this principle. Every choice was an illusion in the larger arc.

ME2 presents the player with a multitude of events that have the illusion of choice. Reinforced even because when you take that choice, an magical number goes up. If you were to stop playing before the last mission, you would be 99% the same as every other player. It does a tremendous job in the final act to present impactful choices, but those impacts are only felt in cutscenes rather than impacting future choices.

I posit that this presentation of final choice in ME2, and what is a minor cliffhanger, set up ME3 for very high expectations. More on how that worked once I complete the ME3 playthrough.

Social Commodity

Spurred from posts on TimetoLoot and Kaylriene, and the prospect of Bhagpuss having his own!

In my field of work (and it would appear the general population) the goal is commoditization. That is, taking a highly complex and integrated thing, and simplifying it to a degree where the user requires minimal understanding in order to consume. Photography is a good example. Up until digital cameras came about, you had to know how to use a camera, manage the film, store it, then bring it to a shop to get it developed. No wonder people treasured photographs, it took weeks to get to see the result. Today, a toddler can take a dozen pictures without effort and print them out at home (or put it in a digital frame).

Socially we understand commodities as mostly basic items. Water and electricity in developed nations are just there. This is not the case for billions of people on the planet. We go to the grocery store to get food (or order it online) while other needs to grow for sustenance.

In games, there’s the crazy complexity of something like D&D as compared to early Atari games of blocks of pixels. Getting that complexity to be simplified required a TON of work. You can play games that are mechanically as complex as D&D today, but with relatively simple interfaces making it a smoother experience. Games like Call of Duty sell millions of copies, not because it’s super complex and deep (it is) but because the skill floor is so dang low. Anyone and their grandpa can play.

People tend to gravitate to the law of least effort. That we are pretending having dialogue on something like Twitter for complex subjects is ample evidence of our group laziness. These things are easy to use, and certainly even easier to abuse. I suppose this is in-line with the general laws of conservation of energy…

Complexity and Demand

And yet we strive for additional complexity. Not so much because because we want to do more, but because we get bored (or oversaturated) with the status quo. We, as a society, are never content with what we have. I can make an omelette in my sleep, but I get a kick out of making a gourmet version. If I could find a stupid easy way to make one in 3 minutes, I’d find a way to add more to it!

There are limits to this however, a waterline of sorts. EQ certainly was revolutionary for the constructs it supported. The game part was pretty much UO in 3D, minus the PVP and housing. You went around camping spawns, looted and sold things, worked as a guild. It was certainly prettier than UO, and appeared to have more depth. Yet the key here was the social part, and that you could have synchronous chat AND gameplay at the same time. To play UO in a group you needed ICQ or some other chat tool. EQ had real time communication channels. Revolutionary at the time.

That innovation and accessibility made it a smash hit. It peaked at 450,000 users which was well double what UO ever achieved. But…

WoW

When WoW launched, it was entirely focused on delivering focused group content, with ease of access, and (at the time) a quality state. It hit 450,000 players in a month and 6 million in a year. Where EQ failed in the game aspect, WoW threw tons of resources to make it as accessible as possible, and for nearly 6 years was unassailable. Certainly helped that it looked amazing compared to pretty much anything else, and could run on a potato.

It’s not from a lack of trying here, the dark days of MMOs trying to beat down WoW are full of records of failures. Most of those related to trying to copy WoW, rather than understanding why it was successful in the first place. WoW had a sunk cost problem in the social space, where people had invested hundreds of hours with other people, on challenging (and again, quality) content. They didn’t have the time to invest the same in another game that had nowhere close to the same amount of accessible content. The other games wanted players to spend the same amount of time as WoW in theirs, effectively having to give up their roots. But for what? The grass was never greener.

Blizzard has a larger problem on their hands. The social part only works if the games have some semblance of quality and value as a social goal. It’s been a rather consistent trend that the individual’s goals are more important that the group’s, not to mention the tremendous lack of QA for 5+ years, and here we are. There are dozens of other games people can invest in.

Descent

People will point to the shard split as what killed UO. (It clearly didn’t, EQ provided a much better experience.) People will say that dungeon finder caused the downfall of WoW. (It also didn’t, this was after the crazy grind of Champions and the end of the WoW story of Arthas, and a significant design shift for Cataclysm. Oh, League of Legends launched too.)

People are hoarders, we keep things close that work (or don’t) until they are more trouble to keep than get rid of. Look in your residence and you’ll find plenty of things you don’t use but keep around because.

Games are not eternal. They are built for a specific purpose, founded on a set of principles and coding foundations. Changing those principles often requires code changes (WoW’s db changes for spells is a good example) and that process is both time consuming and risks alienating the existing population (*cough* NGE in SWG *cough*). UO hit a need at a given time, served it well, and when something more accessible came about, that took the spotlight. WoW is not competing against a single game here, it’s competing against an entire industry, the largest entertainment industry on the planet ($200 billion in games vs $50 billion in film).

Other Games

The smart people in the room figured this out 10 years ago, that WoW’s special sauce is in delivering chemical bursts of pleasure to the brain on a regular basis, and exploiting humanity’s desire for social connection. The most popular games on the planet require positive groups, where success is only achieved through many people working on the same goal. They also have a competitive aspect, where this group is measured more successful than the other (WoW world firsts ring a bell?)

Genshin Impact is (was?) super popular because it was a masterclass at accessible brain drugs. It’s a gacha machine that gives you everything you want, regular explosions of positive reinforcement, and the competitive nature of comparing your draws to someone else.

Publishers aren’t dumb, they are profit making machines. They know that the social fabric is what keeps games popular and people to irrationally (at times) fork over dough. CoD’s dominance is primarily because of the people you play with, and ability to measure against others. They put enough social hooks in it to force people to get the next iteration, even if there’s no improvements present, aside from new maps. How does FIFA have people buy the exact same product year after year, just with new rosters?

To happenstance deliver quality and accessibility is a near miracle, requiring a level of passion that doesn’t exist (or is actively squashed) in large organizations. Indie devs sometimes find this, and we’ve seen plenty of examples, through thousands of failures. For every Valheim, you get Shiplord by the shovelful. That EA and ActiBlizz do this is mechanical to exploit the maximum from the playerbase – can’t blame them, it works!

The Future

The demand for social is larger than ever, in the connected sense. The need for intuitive design abstracting complexity is the eternal frontier. People swear by iOS even though it does less than Android, because it just works. The gaming frontier is subject to the same drivers and won’t revolutionize until that joint nut is cracked.

How do you get millions of people to be social together, using an intuitive interface over a multi-dimensional complex game? For now, sci-fi is the only place for answers. It will come, there’s no question.

SteamPal and Mobility

The silver lining of this pandemic is the forced hand of increased mobility to do nearly everything. Restaurants have had to figure out ordering online and pickups. Hardware stores deal with curbside pickup. Offices with insane volumes of remote workers. Video chat for everything it seems. The resistance that work cannot be done without face to face interaction is dissipating, replaced with fatigue of somehow doing more in less time. Commuting may not have been good for the environment (1 bus is like 50 cars, and 1 Amazon driver seems to be worth a hundred), but the mental gains from that repose of life certainly were. Some good from this, and a new social challenge to surmount.

Gaming has for many years been a remote affair. You buy games online, download, and play. It’s not exactly remote, in the concept that you are still beholden to a desk or a couch. Mobile gaming is disparaged as a mobile phone nightmare, and I can’t really blame that view. While they are certainly able devices, they are missing the necessary inputs (controls) and outputs (video connections) to be proper alternatives. Great as diversions, and some of the biggest games on the planet, at least profit-wise, are mobile.

What we’ve had instead are either homebrew systems that need an engineering degree or proprietary boxes with poor battery performance and limited gamesets. The PSP and VITA were great ideas, as were the GBA and 3/DS. The latter of which was a real standout, notably for a stupidly long lasting battery and touch controls. Eventually we got the Switch, which smartly integrated with an app store with a large focus on 3rd party/indie games.

That store is garbage by the way, with an interface designed by a lead-eating chimp. It’s 2021 and a first year student could do a better job – it’s ridiculous the amount of money Nintendo is leaving on the table. The console itself however is mechanically superb. Great visuals in a mobile form, detachable and complex controllers. Easy docking for connection to an external screen. Easy to add more controllers. Doesn’t yet have wireless headphone support mind you, but that should be a firmware update. As an iterative view on consoles, it’s good.

But back to that horrid interface. Which I should add, has initial retail prices for way too long. Immortals Fenyx Rising sells for $30 retail now, but $60 on Switch. Sales seem to be once a year, so there’s some price resistance if people have something other than a Switch (and if surveys are any indication, that is certainly the case).

Steam

Lots of preamble to get to the interesting news about Steam working on their own handheld portable. There’s not much on it, other than the expectation of a larger reveal this year.

The less good to start… Valve has a history of launching very interesting ideas and then not following through. Steambox, Steam Controller, VR… not even talking about their games. Credit that it does a great job incubating ideas, but the follow-through is very rough. So while this is interesting, Valve has a poor track record for, oh, just about anything that isn’t the actual Steam store.

The good part is the actual Steam store. I have no real issues with Epic’s game store, but Steam really is the all-in-one solution. Nearly every game on the planet, with thousands added every month. Ongoing sales, curated lists, message boards, and a very impressive Big Picture Mode (which does great on remote play). The software part is extremely solid, which is extremely important for any console.

The question marks in this space are less hardware related and more so on the operating system. The reason consoles just plain work is the hardstamped hardware config and optimized OS. The CPU is one piece, the RAM another… but those are small peanuts to the video card. Nearly every PC game issue I’ve encountered was related to the video card – made worse with AMD and NVIDIA taking much different approaches to architecture. I don’t expect this thing to run Crysis at 4K, but there are certainly some expectations that games with controller support look decent and can actually run without continual device patches.

And then there’s the games. While PC traditionally focuses on mouse/keyboard controls, there are plenty that support controllers. With the world’s largest PC library, it will be a balancing act to figure out what games do and do not get support. CoD seems an option, until you realize that it requires nearly 300gb of data to even boot.

Finally, the mystery mark around Stadia & remote gameplay. The concept of remote gameplay is almost entirely predicated on amazing network speeds and tiny latency. Yes, there are server hardware pieces that need to be sorted out, given that the processing requirements are always in flux. The user experience is gaming is focused on input lag. If the SteamPal can support both local and remote gameplay… well that would be a rather crazy mixture.

Given the challenges in hardware development, I’d be amazed if this thing was consumer ready within 3 years, another 2 to work out the bug, and then 5 to optimize . While I’m certainly not holding my breath, I am oddly optimistic that this thing can actually work. Quite impressed with the prospect!

ME: Paragon & Renegade

I finished ME1 the other day. Replaying that in 2021 really shows how much the game was an incubator of ideas. Playing ME2 highlights that to a crazy degree. The MAKO is gone. Inventory is not longer a headache. The hacking mini-game is somewhat improved. Dialogue is more nuanced. The game is no longer 5 main quests and then 80% MAKO/empty-planet/same-building side quests. In nearly every respect, ME2 improves upon ME1.

Included, Paragon/Renegade are better balanced, which itself has evolved from KOTOR.

ME1 Choices

The challenge in ME1 is mostly around Renegade – in that nearly all the choices are objectively bad. Aside from perhaps the double crossing side quests on Noveria, the Renegade choices all focus on killing the person with whom you’re having a conversation. Ok, ok… hanging up on the Council felt good. Paragon choices, by comparison, were about you saving starving puppies. It’s not that people want to only play Paragon, it’s that the choices provided are “keep the story going” and “stop the conversation”. Most people are going to take the former, so it’s not really a choice. By the end of my playthrough, even after trying to take as may Renegade choices as possible, I was a clear goody-two-shoes.

The devs clearly spent cycles building this system, and the rates were abysmal for Renegade run throughs. Clearly an improved system was required.

ME2 Choices

There are two notable changes here. Fist are the interruption actions that can be taken while an NPC is talking. The paragon ones are simple enough. The Renegade ones are usually about punching people, or interrupting their speech. They are well placed, and with few exceptions you should be using them.

The second is the scope of the actions. The choice itself is less about the end result but more about the path to which you achieve it. The stolen chit side quest is a good example, where you physically intervene at the end when injustice is the outcome. (Weird side note – for the vendors you get Paragon/Renegade options to get discounts… makes no real sense…) The majority of the points aren’t directly related to outcomes, simply conversation paths. Each squad member has quite a few options to help move them along, and a certain preference to dialog options. Zaeed clearly is pure Renegade, while Jacob is almost entirely Paragon. There are also more dialogue options present, and through some game mindset calibration, you get taught that it’s good to explore all options as the consequences are story related, rather than outright rewards (as in ME1).

By the half-way mark in ME2, my Paragon and Renegade are relatively balanced. The Renegade choices are less about being bad, but more about the ends justifying the means. Punching that reporter running garbage stories on me feels good.

D&D Viewset

The concept of morality and choice stems, as nearly all RPG things, from D&D.

Video games prior to 2000 were pretty much all in the Lawful Good area… you were the plucky hero. As more RPGs came about, more choice was presented. Ultima famously brought in Virtues to reflect this in a different light, as people were “optimizing” the game by being as evil as possible. You can see these influences in all Black Isle and Bioware games.

ME1’s Paragon seemed to best fit with the Lawful Good mindset. Follow the rules, be good. Renegade was closer to Neutral Evil… there was some logic to the choices made after all. But you were still evil.

ME2 tweaked this, bringing them all closer to neutral. Paragon is closer to Neutral Good, while Renegade is somewhat closer to Chaotic Neutral – not bad, just a different set of rules. Moving away from the purity of choice allows more nuance into conversation, even in the middle of a game. It then focuses on the outcome of the decision as the reputation (e.g. you saved X) and less about how polite you were in doing so.

Other Games

Other Bioware-like games have come since, and each has tried to tweak the model somewhat. Pillars of Eternity is the more traditional D&D model. Tyranny only worries about Evil alignment (and does an excellent job!) Divinity is the outlier here, as it’s arguably larger than Baldur’s Gate 2 and has a rather complex morality system that is more outcome based (and reputation) than pure alignment. As BG3 continues, it will be interesting to see if it’s more in line with the older model or the new one.

Clearly it’s more complex to keep track of the outcomes of every decision rather than a point scale of good/bad. It’s a better experience though, and one that you really notice when it’s missing in an RPG that presents choice.