Poor Planning

I am anxious by nature, and one of the mechanisms I use to control that is planning.  I used to overplan, to the n-th degree, but over time I’ve learned to let some things just slide.  I think in reality, I’m just better at managing odds and the low percentage events get a whole lot less attention than they used to.

At work I oversee a team that supports a critical service for a whole bunch of clients.  Outages mean freakouts and long hours, so we go to great lengths to manage the risk.  IT, after all, is a commodity now.  And you only notice a commodity when it isn’t there (like water, electricity).  Planning of large changes takes a fair amount of lead time, and we need to do a lot of testing to make sure it works.  Part of that testing includes load/stress/failure, where we throw everything we can at system and see what happens.  We test at daily load, peak load, and critical load – meaning what do we normally see in a day, what is the highest number we see in a day, and what have we planned for before it melts.

For starting companies, launching a new product, this can be really hard to do.  Maybe the architecture/platform is new.  Maybe there wasn’t enough research to estimate the load.  Maybe you get really popular before you can grow.

For larger, established companies, these items should not occur.   The ol’ error 37 in Diablo 3.  The inability for Sim City to work for nearly a month.  New MMOs that melt for the first week.  Typically, this is borne from a) poor testing and b) poor market analysis for load (you are popular).

How do you know if you’ll be popular?  Today you can check pre-sales and the number of accounts registered.  Social media trends.  Analysis from gaming blogs.  Plenty of data to give you a pulse.  If you’re big enough, then you have extra hardware on stand-by anyhow, since you’re running a cloud-type data center.  May not be able to turn them on in 5 minutes, but a day or two should be reasonable.

Which brings me to the VIP demo for Anthem, and the servers “melting”.

The reason this is confusing is that the VIP demo is only for players who have

  • Pre-ordered
  • Active on Origin Premier
  • Have received an invite and linked it to their account

That is a fraction of the launch day user base.  It’s an even smaller fraction than those that will use the open beta.  Plus… it’s not like EA has no experience running online games – Battlefield V is only a month or so old.

So maybe the server architecture is too complex to spin up.  Maybe they had already planned to add capacity and the equipment came in late.  Maybe their stress testing wasn’t accurate and this is the fall back plan (my $$ on this one).

Regardless, it’s good news that they are able to react this quickly.  Glad the days of waiting weeks for server capacity are behind us.  And really, the entire point of this demo is to test the infrastructure for load and bugs.  Better now than on launch.

Guacamelee 2

Or rather, how Celeste has spoiled me.

I never had the chance to play the first game, but I always heard it was a nice gem of a game.  The metroidvania genre has always been a fun time.  Super Metroid really did a bang up job there, and most of the DS Castlevania games hit it out of the park. The genre does seem somewhat relegated to the indie space, as it doesn’t translate well to 3d games.  Darksiders tried that approach, and there’s a bit of it in the Zelda series, but I can’t really think of other examples.

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All the red will kill you.

The game seems to be aiming for satire more than much else.  The skill upgrade nodes are straight out of Metroid.  I get the stereotypical/pun heavy humor.   It generally works, and makes the story move forward. The art and music is top notch too.  Feels like a realized world, which is oddly important.

Your character unlocks various abilities over the course of the game, but those abilities seem at odd with the fundamental concepts of the game.  I mean, you’re a wrestler.  Should you not know how to body slam from the start?  The various directional slams are used in combat, and also used to destroy extremely obvious blocks, for extra areas.  There’s an entire subset of the game dedicated to the chicken form (yes!) and it’s skills.  You’ll go an hour only being able to punch up, then 2 hours of punching sideways, then you finally unlock punching down.  Meh.

The good thing, is that the map is extremely detailed, and shows you exactly which blocks are where, and what treasure chests you’ve seen but haven’t yet acquired.  It diminishes a lot of the secret finding, as the map is likely more obvious than the game screen, but it’s a welcome addition.

Where I am spoiled is in the controls.  Celeste has perfect controls.  It has perfect level design, down to the pixel.  You don’t scrape by a spike, you hit a spike.  You don’t hit imaginary walls, momentum means something, and it’s crystal clear each puzzle was tested to infinity and beyond.

Guacamelee 2 is very loose, and the timing is off.  Many of the more challenging puzzles require multiple sequential button presses, and specific directions to complete. It may go something like, jump, slam, punch, pull, slam, pull, pull, punch, dash.  And at no time can you touch the ground.  Celeste taught me that was achievable and that I simply had to learn the timing.  Guacamelee 2 has nothing to do with timing.  It has pixel correction and the art does not match the pixels.  Some spikes are wider than others, even though they look the same.  Momentum is not applied consistently.  You character will get animation-locked in a specific direction.  What I mean here is that the puzzles are well designed, but poorly implemented.

Thankfully, nearly all of the puzzles are optional.

Take the puzzles out and the rest is really top notch.  Battles are fun, the world is great to explore, the chicken mode is great, there are multiple alternate costumes, plenty of side quests, a neat skill tree, and really fun boss fights.  The important thing, is that it’s fun.  Well worth the buy.

Clues on the Interwebs

Syp’s nostalgia tour with Quest for Glory had me itching for a replay.

There are a few childhood memories that sit with me still, those of just pure joy.  I can clearly remember opening a Christmas gift and looking at a dragon, trying to figure out what was going on.  Turning the box around, I saw it was a computer game and read every inch of that manual before getting home.

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So old school it’s a different name now.

There’s a special place in my brain for Sierra adventure games.  King’s Quest’s pass or die mechanics were not exactly attractive, but QfG’s skill-based checks were amazing!  1989 brought the concept that repeated skill use meant you got better at the skill.  Completely novel at the time.

I still remember getting lost in the game and having to resort to those really cheap “red screen on red text” guides to help me through the tough bits.  Not because the individual quests were hard, but because of the interdependence of those quests.  (Incidentally learning of the benefits of black box testing.)

I played the 2nd one when it came out, and having to draw my own complicated map of the city.  Dying in the desert to pretty much anything that looked at me.  Trying to figure out how to become a paladin.  Back again to the red-screen books.

The 3rd one I bought with my own money, and I can still recall my mouse driver not working for 6 months.  Every play a click adventure without a mouse?  Wow!  This is the game that taught me that you need to go everywhere, at least twice, and at all times of the day.  Without finding the thief at night in Tarna on day 3, you couldn’t beat the final boss on day 20.

The 4th (same as Syp is on now) was a rightful mess of A-B-C quests that all started near the same time, could overlap, and then ended at different times.  It looked and sounded cool but was insanely buggy.  The Mad Monk swamp quest would remain incomplete for 10 years (and the end battle) due to non-stop computer crashes.  It’s ironic that everything but the mechanics of the game were amazing.  But the SCII engine was clearly pushed beyond it’s limits.

The 5th and final entry was bought on nostalgia more than anything else.  First foray in 3d, the mechanics worked decent enough for the time.  The issue was the quests – in particular the Iblis portion.  It was entirely possible to paint yourself into a corner, with no way out unless you completely restarted the game and put in different skill points.  The puzzles themselves were quite fun, and not really needing much of a guide at that point (well, maybe cause I was older).  Then ending did cap the overall story, and was pretty much the end of the adventure-RPG genre in my eyes.

Finding Help

The adventure genre (Sierra in particular) was notorious for obtuse puzzles, and puns that were supposedly clues.  One in the 4th told you about throwing something that’s not a bird, and a yellow one on the ground.  Apparently that means throwing a rock and leaving a rubber chicken on the ground.  That said, one of the novelties was the multiple solution quests, where each class could bring a new approach.  So where the warrior would through stones, the mage could cast force bolt, and then fetch their goal.  That added flexibility/complexity really came into it’s own in the 4th entry.

Still, there were some pretty big brain stumpers.  And those red-screen guides were my go-to well before the interwebs.  Prima Guides didn’t really exist for much more that stat books (great for RPGs), especially if you only wanted partial spoilers.  I would never have killed a single Dark Aeon in FFX without gamefaqs.

Nowdays, I get spoilers for everything before the game has even launched.  It is a rare occasion that the gameplay has some sort of puzzle that cannot be solved with a quick google/discord search.  And it’s not like we’re forced to look these things up, it’s just that they are so damn accessible.  Heck, I’ve written my share of guides.  It’s an interesting shift, where there’s a general lack of mystery and gumption to get through rough spots.  I still very much enjoy the learning aspect, the trial by error.  The Room series on mobile is a great example of puzzle games, without major fail conditions.

Dunno, maybe it’s the competitive nature of gaming.  Maybe it’s the sheer amount of games that release. A combination of other things.  Right now, it feels like a buffet and I’m asking for instructions on how to get through it efficiently, rather than truly taking the time to enjoy the meal.

Anthem – 2 Weeks Out

I’m writing posts about Anthem for a few reasons.

  • really want BioWare to have some success.
  • I like the coop squad shooter genre, in general
  • I think the game is a bellweather for both EA and gaming-as-a-whole general direction, more so after Bungie split from Activision

Technically, we are 5 weeks out from general release (Feb 22) but we are also technically 2 weeks out from a VIP demo (Jan 25-27), and then a few days later a general demo (Feb 1-3 – a relatively important date).  Which in years past would be called stress tests.  Pretty close.

Anthem, for better or worse, is compared to Destiny and Warframe – sci-fi squad shooters.  (To some extent, the Division as well, but that setting and focus on in-game PvP sets it apart.)  Point is, it’s not new to the market, and it’s competing for eyeballs from games that already have an established user base.  Which begs the question, what user base is BW expecting a) at launch and b) as monthly users?

The Push

As a general rule, people are stupid.  Individuals not so much, but people for sure.  Easily susceptible to peer pressure, and targeted media.  The current state of the US/UK is a pretty solid example of that.  Point here is simply that with a relatively minor investment in marketing, this game could be the general talk of the town.  It’s barely getting a mention.

Sure, IGN has quite a few videos posted from the November alpha.  It’s barely present on “anticipated games” lists.  My gaming feeds get a mention spike every month or so, the most recent one relating to match-making-for-everything.

At this relative time previous, Destiny 2 (even the first one) was in a major media blitz.  TV commercials, articles everywhere, near full saturation.  Maybe EA has plans for Superbowl weekend (the Feb 1-3 date I mentioned earlier)?  It would certainly hit a ridiculous amount of eyeballs, but the costs must be quite insane.

The Gameplay

All I have are videos.  The game looks faster and more movement based that it did before.  There are still some rather massive bullet sponges.  It does not appear that tactics ever matter, simply spamming every ability on cooldown.  Everything is speculation pending actual gameplay experience, so I’ll withhold further comment.

I think the relative few bits of information we have about the game relate to managing expectations.  It is always better to under-promise and over-deliver.  Something that games like Monster Hunter excel at, while Destiny 2 / Division have paid a tremendous toll.  Smart.

The Focus

This summer, Casey Hudson mentioned that the game would never have PvP.  A recent interview stated something a bit different, in that PvP may come at a later date.  The game also comes with matchmaking for all activities.  Of all things, these two items are clear lessons learned from the previous attempt at multi player games from BioWare and one of the largest criticisms with Destiny.  How that is actually implemented is a different matter (either auto-LFG or some sort of group-posting option) will be interesting to see.

Yet a clear focus on one game mode (PvE) is a good thing.  No game can launch with a kitchen sink approach.  Do one thing, do it well.  Grow when the opportunity presents itself.

There are also no lootboxes (smart) and all microtransactions are cosmetic driven.  Maybe, just maybe, this is what will actually be delivered.  I would love to know what I’m buying.

The Future

Speculation only here.  I expect Anthem to have a fair share of issues at launch.  That is simply BioWare’s MO (close to Bethesda).  There will be a massive day 1 patch, and then more along the way.

I don’t expect gangbuster sales, but more of a sleeper hit.  It seems more like it’s targeting word of mouth (which has been generally positive), rather than day 1 sales.  An interesting approach.

My overall expectations for the game were extremely low this time last year.  As the small bits of news have come out, BioWare has done a good job of addressing player concerns.  It is a rather large departure from any new IP launch in terms of marketing, but perhaps this lower investment allows for larger returns.  I do hope it has some success, again in terms of BioWare’s continued existence and in the ideal situation, a more sustainable/conscious approach to game releases.

Players as Content

I would think the trend of the last few years, at least in terms or big games, has been to have players be the actual content.  E-sports wouldn’t exist without this concept.

I make this akin to board games.  As much as I do enjoy your standard competitive games, I much prefer the cooperative ones.  Where Descent is a gold standard for miniature combat such as we see in D&D campaigns, I prefer something like Shadows of Brimstone where everyone at the table is working together.  Instead of trying to outwit a DM (who in 95% of cases knows every bit more of the game than anyone else), you are battling RNG.

Video games are similar in that regard. While there are certainly a lot of coop games, there are so many more competitive games out there.  The difference being that coop games focus on you working together to beat some computer code, and PvP games nearly always focused on defeating the other team (rather than say, achieve the goal faster than the other team).

That distinction is key, as a developer has to put in relatively minor content updates to keep people coming back.  (I won’t bother going into why F2P games have faster content cycles… that should be fairly obvious.)  Less content means less development costs, and a better MAU (monthly use).  In financial terms, it appears to be the best direction.

But then you get into the question of actual game design.  Not all competitive games are designed equally.  MOBAs seem simple, one where simply cloning another model should be an easy way to cash out.  See Infinite Crisis for an example of how that works.  The competitive nature of people is an adrenaline kick of being in the thick of things, having some feeling of control, having fun, winning, and then being able to show that you’ve won.  Each piece of that is important to the whole.

And game design impacts each piece of that puzzle.  Many developers focus on only one part, or perhaps only have skill in one part.  Some take an existing design and then try to insert another model, providing a more monstrous design that either source could achieve alone.

Which does get me back to a previous thought that Anthem would be so much better served without PvP.  BioWare has a horrible track record for that aspect of game design, and their majority player base is not in the game for that reason.

Also related, WoW’s BfA design of PvP everywhere.  Fair to say that BfA is not exactly winning accolades for that decision, and certainly not gaining players for it.  Seems rather to be much more news about the inability for design to balance PvP in relation to the fact that the entire game model is based on PvE.

Long story short, design a game is hard work.  Either coop or competitive is hard enough, and mixing both together is more than the sum of the parts.  People can’t complain that content is broken if it doesn’t exist in the first place.

 

Frostpunk

It’s like a fancy Pharoah / Cleopatra.  Or Ceasar /  Master of Olympus depending on your age.  That’s nearly 20 years ago since a decent one was made.  Maybe that’s why this one hits the right notes?  Large push from Syncaine to try this one out.

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There’s a lot to keep track of

Up front, this is the game I have the least time played.  Not because it’s bad, just because it’s not the type of game you can just put down and come back to.  It’s a game entirely about momentum.

Basics are simple enough, you run a small city in the ice cold.  You need to shelter, feed, heal the population.  You need to explore, research and build contraptions to do more with less. And you ultimately need to have more hope than discontent, or people won’t do the things you ask them do.

It’s a game of choices, though how hard they are depends on how mechanical you want to become.  If you’re ok with amputees rather than sick folk, since they are less of a draw on resources, then the choice is pretty easy.  If there’s any message to take from the game it’s that Technocracy is a damn cold way to run a group of people.  Survival inherently comes at the cost of humanity, and how far down that slope you want to go is up to you.

While there is some randomness to events, generally the choices you make in one game will be similar in the next.  There’s a generally optimal path to start the building process, at least until you get into the exploration phase.  Tough choices are make/break when it comes to healthy population, ensuring adequate levels of food/heat.  Optimal doesn’t mean the only way mind you, just the one that’s most tolerant of bad luck.  You can select multiple paths along the way, though each brings its own set of challenges.

While both simplistic (smallish map) and complex (buildings are hard to tell apart, many icons), most choices are made from the main screen’s information overlay.  I never felt like the game was hiding something from me, and each choice made was done so with all relevant data present.  There are very few “what’s behind door #2” situations.  And the majority of choices are balanced against each other, either in the immediate choice or in future choices along the path.  Using the amputee example above, eventually you get to select prostheses for your population.

The overall art/music is quite solid. Visually you can see people trudging through the snow.  You get proper sound alerts when things happen.  There are pause and speed-up options.  Day/night cycles.

The game sessions are long, in line with other city builders.  Since all the missions (until recently) were goal based, they vary somewhat in length, but I’ve not seen one under 30 minutes and most are around the hour mark.  A quirk of this genre is that by the mid-point mark you have so many things going on at once, that leaving and coming back from a save can be a challenge.  You are going to miss something and things will start falling apart.  When you do manage to get an entire scenario down in a sitting, it’s an extremely good feeling.  I guess it’s a bit like a board game in that sense.

It’s a solid recommendation.

Final Fantasy X / X-2

I have owned at least a half dozen versions of this game.  Second only to Chrono Trigger (dozens on that one, I’m sure).

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The Crew

There’s a special place in my mind for this game, as it was the first to (successfully) move away from the ATB model and really focus on the strategic combat portions.  Character swaps are an integral part of the gameplay, and understanding turn order is key for some battles.  The level of control here is where my issues with FF12/13/15 come into play.

I won’t talk about FFX-2.  There were some neat ideas tried here (notably the foundation for FF12’s kitchen sink approach) but it detracted too much from the previous entry.

I won’t rehash much here on FFX.  If you haven’t played this game from 2001 by now, there isn’t a whole lot more to say.  The PC version is the re-release from 2014, which is the international edition + cheat console.  That means Dark Aeons, expert sphere grid, turbo mode, infinite gil and so on.  What’s good here is that I can play it without any input lag, which is a problem with a lot of games nowdays.  Most games have compensation for it now, but older games were hardcoded and even a 0.1s lag was enough to detract from specific button actions.  Dodging lightning, or getting an Overdrive to connect is painful.

Some high level thoughts

  • The story is more resonant now than it was back then.  A world of continual sorrow, with small patches of hope.  People making choices for things larger than themselves.  Themes of self-sacrifice are all over.
  • The game is bug free and smooth.
  • For the most part, the RNG in this game is fair.  All the instant KO hits are telegraphed.
  • Blitzball randomness of stats is ever annoying.
  • This game is insanely linear for a very long time.  The variety of combat is what keeps it interesting (press A doesn’t work).
  • The FMV cutscenes are still solid (34gb install!!)
  • The in-game engine cutscenes have better art, but are even more jarring in HD.  The acting is bad, the writing is on-par with George Lucas, and the camera angles are all over the place.
  • The music is still captivating.  The Hymn of the Fayth is still haunting.
  • I really do love the chess match of each boss battle. It really is a thinking game.
  • It was smart having three villains – one for Yuna, one for Tidus, and then the general acceptance of fate.

FFX is one of the better in the series, and if you haven’t tried it for a while, or have yet to play any variant, it’s a solid pick.