After Thoughts – Hyper Light Drifter

Hyper Light Drifter is by any measure a very good game. It renders a frequently pretty pastel post-apocalyptic world, animates it well, and follows through with a soundtrack that I never wanted to turn down or mute. And muting the music is something I normally do in a game before I’ve even checked the graphical options or set my controls. The story, for all its repetitive symbolism, isn’t overbearing or intrusive. As you know, I like a game that lets me play. And I enjoyed playing it. I was hankering for something simple and focused on action, and the friend who recommended Hyper Light Drifter did the right thing.

No game is perfect, and I don’t expect them to be. But I also can’t help myself thinking about what I play and cataloguing my thoughts. These are them. Continue reading

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Arcade Stories – Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow over Mystara

(This article was originally published in 2013, but has been updated and edited for clarity, and because I have to start somewhere. Since then, Sengoku 3 was published in the Wii Virtual Console.)

Recently, I received the good news that Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow over Mystara, which is probably my favourite arcade game if we’re not counting fighting games, is finally getting an affordable port to a system worth owning. Just waiting for that Golden Axe: The Revenge of Death Adder port and I can finally move on with my life.

Both of those were part of a lost generation of video games, sitting alongside many other beat ’em ups, the biggest of which were also CPS2-based like Shadow over Mystara. They come from that long period in the 90s where arcade hardware was still firmly ahead of console hardware, and arcades themselves were still considered viable forms of mid-afternoon entertainment in every mall and shopping district in North America and Asia (and probably Euroland as well). This meant that many developers still made games exclusively for arcades. And, like platforming games were on consoles, the beat ’em up (and the fighting game, I suppose) was the default dumping ground for many licensed properties (There were still plenty of terrible cash-in beat ’em ups on consoles, but they’re not nearly as interesting). For example, while Bart Simpson got a series of middling platforming games on home and portable consoles, the Simpsons made a much more successful and fondly remembered appearance in the imaginatively-titled The Simpsons Arcade Game.

Continue reading

The Tyranny of Choice

So, Dawngate, one of the newer pretenders to the League of Legends throne, has finally rolled out its version of Runes and Masteries. I’m going to move right past the fact that other games in the genre have proven that this feature is just another time and money sink (and even a trap) and get right down to the problem it presents for those who are just playing the game.

The strangest thing about these meta-game stat systems is that they seem to be designed for a game that was released 20 years ago, in a vacuum, and without the internet. Except that Dawngate, like every other game in the genre, is only played online. So the developers have to know that anyone who is able to play their game is also able to do something as simple as type “Dawngate loadout guide” into a search engine. Right now that wouldn’t get them much outside of some basic tutorials, but that feature has only been in a game for a couple of weeks.

And that’s the best time for this type of system. A week or two in and everyone is still discovering the system and its components. The features are fresh and new and interesting. But what about 6 or a year from now, when many players have had access to most of the available combinations for long enough to have done the min/maxing legwork? It’s about that time that these customization options start to look like one of the Kardashians without the benefit of makeup or Photoshop.

I have already made my case about the current fixation with guide-based gaming, and I think this type of system is one of the reasons it’s such a problem.

I’m willing to give these games the benefit of the doubt and go with the idea that there isn’t one or two optimum setups for a given hero or role, that with enough ingenuity and forward thinking it’s possible for any player to actually customize their selected character or role in a way that will make them both unique and viable at all play levels. Even then, in that scenario that is, frankly, a fantasy, these systems fall apart under their own weight.

Too many choices can be just as much of a problem as no choices at all. This isn’t even unique to games and stats, The Economist has written about how modern consumers are often overwhelmed by available choices, and how that has a become a problem for all involved. As far as I’m concerned, the same basic ideas apply to anyone playing one of these League of Legends clones–and since they have to pay for customization with time or money they’re not much different from someone trying to buy a traditional product.

In this ideal world where anyone could succeed with any number of combinations of gems or sparks or runes or whatever they’re being called, how many are actually willing and able to follow through? Even if they had it in their minds to experiment, how many would be willing to spend their hard earned in-game currency on a setup that may end up being a complete waste? A simple and very generalized Rune page in League of Legends starts at the low, low price of 5 digits worth of IP, which is more than enough to purchase multiple champions, and is likely to be all (or more) of the IP a player has earned at the point where they can fill it out. How much of that would they be willing to gamble? I’d be surprised if Dawngate didn’t end up with the same general numbers.

If only to save time and headaches most players will opt to follow a guide even if those guides weren’t already considered to be the optimal min/maxing available. They would do that for the same reason people don’t comparison shop in 5 different grocery stores when they just want a box of crackers. It’s easier to pick a brand in the shop they’re already in than to spend all of that extra time trying to grind out potential advantages. There is only so much time in a day, and only so much attention a player can realistically dedicate to learning these systems. If 9 out of 10 pro players use a setup for their role or character, why risk trying to break the mould?

Which leads into the next problem with these systems. Say a player finally has their ideal min/maxed setup for their character and role of choice, what happens when they want to try something new? Can they properly support without a proper support setup? Can they be relied on to play a carry role without the Rune page to back it up? Would they want to try?

Of course, many of the benefits given by these expensive and time consuming customization systems are measured in fractions of a percent. How much of an impact do they really have? In an era of pro gaming any amount of min/maxing will be disseminated rapidly, and anyone who cares to know what the “best” setups are will. Then there are the dual problems of how much they matter: If the overall impact of a complicated meta-game system, one that requires dozens of hours of grinding for a player to achieve, is actually negligible while playing the game, then what’s the point of the system if not to suck extra time and money out of the players. On the other hand, if having the most optimal meta-game setup does have a noticeable impact to player’s performance, then giving them so many extra ways to do it wrong–which would be a waste of their time and money on top of hurting their impact in-game–is just as questionable.

It’s even more suspect if, like in League of Legends, the developers also tell the players what setups they should be using. We’re approaching the point of these guys becoming used car salesmen, trying to sell a new character, but also making very sure the customer won’t be able to play it properly if they don’t but all these extras as well.

In the end, as long as players can min/max, they certainly will min/max. It’s more than likely that within 9 months any deviation from standard, established setups will just be an invitation for flames.

Random Legacy: The Difficulty of Boss Patterns

I was recently gripped by some form of fever-madness. I’m not clear on exactly what happened, but I know that when I finally felt in control again I had done the unthinkable: bought some new video games. I had even added a few of them to Steam.

One of the games I bought was Rogue Legacy. I was inspired by watching someone else struggle through the game on YouTube. I saw some reviews that said it was a brutal and difficult game, comparing it to Dark Souls.

Well, I have never played Dark Souls, but if Rogue Legacy is what passes for difficult these then I fear for our future. Even when Rogue Legacy presents the traits of difficulty, it also gives the players so many tools with which to bypass any problems they encounter that it doesn’t seem to matter. There is a tricky set of spike traps in a room? Find a different path, or just reroll the castle till it’s easier. A boss is presenting a challenge? Keep rerolling characters till an optimal combination is found, or if things are too extreme, grind some more.

Then I found the remix bosses.

Where every other part of Rogue Legacy was dictated by RNG and gave the player the option to grind their way to victory, the remix bosses are static. When a player confronts a remix boss they are given a new character with set abilities and equipment. They get the same character every time, and there is no way to change it. They are given a task with rigid parameters and no way to get around them. These bosses should be a true test of skill, right?

Now that I’ve beaten them, I’m not so sure. Because they were still full of random elements.

When I was younger the games that were considered difficult were also very rigidly patterned. Contra, Metal Slug, and SHMUPS could all be tough as nails to 1CC, but they were the same every time. I remember playing my copy of Contra 3 at home whenever I had, say, 15 minutes, because I had the timings and patterns for the first 3 or so stages down well enough that I knew not only that I could beat them every time, but also how long it would take. Every play through after that was a small step closer to my ultimate goal: beating Contra 3 on Hard, which I eventually accomplished. Upon realizing my goal I felt like I had put that last puzzle piece into its place, and soon after I stopped playing the game. What else was there to do? It was the same each time I finally managed a 1CC of a Metal Slug game, or the few SHMUPS I could get my hands on.

I know those games could, and often did, infuriate players. They were considered chores by many, or even work. Maybe it’s just the type of person I am, but I found them to be relaxing. Games don’t make me angry, or even very frustrated. Back then I would happily put on some headphones and listen to a favourite album while I slowly worked my way through another set of boss attack patterns, making just a little more progress through the game. Some days that progress was getting past another full stage, sometimes it was only getting past another screen. Either way, I knew I was getting somewhere, and that eventually I would reach my goal as long as I memorized another room, figured out where to stand to avoid another attack, or which weapon to use on a miniboss.

My experience with the Rogue Legacy remix bosses was not quite the same. Sure, they had the same basic setups as those games I used to play, but they also have something else that those other games didn’t have, at least not to the same degree: random attack patterns.

Let’s take Alexander IV as an example. He is a giant floating skull that shoots out lines of magenta fireballs at irregular intervals. He is fought in two small rooms, walls and floors all covered in spikes, where the player has only a pair small platforms to stand on, but can freely teleport from room to room using a dash or a recall image. The object of the fight is to kite the boss around the stage, avoiding his attacks and the attacks of the smaller skulls he summons, until he presents an opening to get a few hits in.

The thing is, sometimes Alexander IV will float off screen and shoot fireballs from a position from which he can’t even be attacked, and sometimes he will float just above a platform, giving the player the perfect opportunity to stand still and get some hits in. There is no way to know what his pattern will be, and there is no way to trick him into doing what the player wants, like it was possible to do with bosses in older games. That means that sometimes an Alexander IV run will be relatively easy, as he masochistically sets himself up for attacks, and sometimes an Alexander IV run feels like a lost cause as he continuously floats just out of range.

Eventually, with enough time invested, the player will get the perfect mix of obvious patterns and their own ability to stay alive long enough to exploit them. But every time I beat a remix boss I was left wondering if I had really conquered it, or if I had just been lucky with its attacks.

When it comes down to it, the distinctions between a Contra-style difficulty and a Rogue Legacy-style difficulty only matter for personal preference. Not everyone wants to feel like they’re just banging their head against a wall until they break through, but I’m sure plenty of people wouldn’t want to feel like they’re banging their head against a wall until they get a lucky headbutt crit, either. Or maybe it’s all in my imagination and I’m just a jaded asshole.

Anyway, Rogue Legacy is a pretty good game. Play it if you have the chance and decide for yourself.

What Riot Is Actually Doing

I want to make it very clear, if it wasn’t already, that this blog is not a news source. I do cite facts whenever I’m able to, and the original purpose was to report on the progress of a developing game, but all that is done now. This article, like all the others I write, is an opinion piece. And I want to mostly stick to opinions that I think might actually be interesting or unique, not my list of the Top 10 Worst Special Move Names In Fighting Games.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about Riot and their attitude toward eSports, their competitive players, and how their actions may be setting precedence for everyone else to follow.

Recently there were reports that the contracts Riot issued to their players for the upcoming League of Legends Championship Series (LCS) has clauses that restrict players from streaming many games that could be seen as rivals to League of Legends. onGamers.com later reported a comment by Whalen ‘RiotMagus’ Rozellemade, head of eSports for Riot, made in a Reddit thread about the contracts:

We say this all the time: we want League of Legends to be a legitimate sport. There are some cool things that come from that (salaried professional athletes, legitimate revenue streams, visas, Staples Center), but there’s also a lot of structural work that needs to be done to ensure a true professional setting.

We recognize there may be some differences of opinion in the perception of pro players’ streams. In the past, pro gamers only had to worry about their personal brands when streaming and, at most, may have had to worry about not using the wrong brand of keyboard to keep their sponsor happy. Now, however, these guys are professionals contracted to a professional sports league. When they’re streaming to 50,000 fans, they’re also representing the sport itself.

I can’t stress enough how these guys in the LCS are on the road to being real, legitimate athletes. This is new territory for a lot of teams (especially in esports), because the transition goes from being a group of talented individuals to being real icons of a sport and a league. Similarly, you probably wouldn’t see an NFL player promoting Arena Football or a Nike-sponsored player wearing Reebok on camera. Pro players are free to play whatever games they want – we’re simply asking them to keep in mind that, on-stream, they’re the face of competitive League of Legends.

I’m sure everyone who cares has already formed an opinion about whether this is right or ethical by now, and I don’t have anything significant to add to that discussion. I’m much more interested in what Riot’s big picture is. They already managed to get League of Legends recognized as a sport in the USA, which I’m sure will eventually turn out to be a big deal for other games, but that, along with these contracts, and the way Riot runs their tournaments in general, shows a fundamentally different approach to eSports compared to other developers. It also shows a different approach to sports in general.

What really sets League of Legends apart from other sports, besides the whole eSports thing, is that it’s the first sport where a company own and controls not only the league, but the game itself. Regular sports are not like that: the NBA is a professional basketball league, but anyone is free to play basketball whenever and wherever they like, and even create rival leagues. Not so with League of Legends, where Riot runs all the major leagues, and also owns the game they play. It wouldn’t even be possible for League of Legends to have a KeSPA situation on their hands, like Blizzard did with Brood War, where another company is using the game to run their own leagues, or any number of professional sports leagues that have popped up over the years as alternatives to the established organizations. (Remember the WHA? Or XFL?) If Riot doesn’t want someone playing their game they can stop them from playing. This puts Riot in a much stronger position if and when players ever try to form a union, as pro athletes have in every major sport. There would be no alternate option for a League of Legends player who didn’t like their contract, except to switch games entirely.

Blizzard learned from Brood War, and so has Riot, and I doubt anyone will let that happen again. In fact, it was probably KeSPA’s overwhelming success at turning another company’s product into their own profit that prompted every developer to create their own eSports department.

I’ll admit that my views on eSports are still informed by years spent with fighting games, where eSports itself is still a bad word, and watching professional Brood War, which was unique. I have always thought that one of the primary reasons for how the fighting game community plays their games, aside from it mostly forming in a time when developers didn’t really care about competitive gaming, was that the games they play were completely static. They were given a game and had to make of it what they could, where, say, an FPS player would at least have the option of mods to fix things they didn’t like. In the time before time (aka the 90s and early 2000s) there weren’t even patches. So fighting game communities had to form their own sets of rules, which were usually as simple as round limits (a 3/5 standard where arcades might be using 2/3 to make the games faster), but could be as extreme as the Smash Bros. community banning all items and special power-ups.

But at least Smash players had that option, because Smash wasn’t supposed to be a competitive game in the first place. The biggest difference now is that every developer knows that players will be streaming their games, that videos will be all over youtube. They usually encourage, or at least tolerate that, because it’s free advertising for them. But what happens when what the developers want and what the competitive community wants start to clash in this new era of social networked gaming?

The Smash example is a little played out, so here’s something more recent: Dead or Alive 5. Compare these two videos, one the grind finals from a recent tournament, the other a promotional gameplay video.

Clearly the promotional video is a better advertisement for the game, but why, exactly? For a start, the tournament players pick flat stages and disable the Danger Zones (the big explodey things that change a stage’s architecture mid-fight), and also never use Power Blows (the slow-motion special moves that allow players to knock each other into Danger Zones), which are the two biggest gameplay additions in Dead or Alive 5 (the 3rd being a special critical state that also seems to be rarely seen in the tournament footage I’ve watched). You could watch 45 minutes of tournament videos and not even realize Danger Zones or Power Blows existed. The players don’t use them because they don’t want to, and the players set the rules for tournaments. Now imagine if they were in the same situation as the League of Legends players. If Tecmo was running all the tournaments and making the rules would they disable some of the game’s core features to appease competitive players?

How long till these options become a thing of the past? Probably a while, but think about how the new consoles have decided to integrate video streaming, which catches them up to PCs, where video game streams are big business for major personalities–which is one of the reasons Riot created those contracts. There has already been at least one major incident of a developer censoring a video game stream for giving their game a bad review (that developer, after public humiliation, removed the copyright block). And that was a youtube dispute between a small indie developer and a well known personality. Imagine a major developer dropping a blanket censor on certain types of content being streamed. Before now a person who wanted to see competitive or critical gameplay of a game had to at least type the request into a search engine and click on a link, but with the new consoles the option to watch other people playing is much more immediate. Which is more likely: that these streaming options will be used to lovingly show off a game’s core features in a way that usually only happens in the wet dreams of an advertiser, or that the streams disseminate game-breaking glitches and multiplayer exploits like a plague.

Many people still watch Street Fighter tournaments and think, “Why won’t these scrubs ever stop spamming fireballs?” And they had to find those videos on youtube before making that judgment. What if someone who is thinking about maybe buying Dead or Alive 5 decides to watch the most recent media available, and only sees a mirror match replay of a tournament game on the smallest, least interesting stage in the game, labelled by the community as, “Excellent! Best game of DOA5 I’ve ever seen!” Somewhere, a Team Ninja employee wakes up in a cold sweat.

At the same time, Riot really is doing something different. Even Valve, who puts down a lot of money for their annual International DotA 2 tournament, still leaves it to 3rd parties and the community to organize and perpetuate the competitive scene. Which is why there are still problems and outrage. Unlike the Fighting Game Community™ and the DotA community, which have been around for long enough to have set ways that frequently clash with public perception, Riot got to start competitive League of Legends with new stock (Most DotA 2 pros were DotA 1 players, while many League of Legends players had never played another game competitively before.), which allows them to influence their players and their public image, and that’s not even counting the contracts. Not to say there aren’t incidents–these are a bunch of kids, for the most part, and stupid things will happen–but they don’t have to deal with well known players and organizers saying that they tolerate things like sexism and racism because that’s how it’s always been. (And to be fair to the older communities, it’s not easy when a bunch of people who have known each other long enough to accept each other and become friends suddenly have their conversations broadcast to the public. I mean, I’ve personally said many things at tournaments and gatherings that would probably get me lynched. I was even told that I had to change how I spoke if I wanted to do stream commentary, because sponsors were starting to get involved.) The NBA controls how their players dress when off the court, and would have no problem fining them for saying things they didn’t like. Don’t expect Riot to do any less, because apparently the NBA is what Riot wants to be.

I don’t play or watch League of Legends, and probably never will–and I doubt I’ll be buying either of the new consoles until they actually get a game worth playing between them–but I recognize that Riot, hand in hand with the gamification of social media and free-to-play systems on modern consoles, is going to completely change how many people think about and experience video games in the years to come. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out, for everyone involved.