Thursday, January 22, 2015

Why I Don't Like Free to Play

I try not to have biases when picking games to play. Sure, I tend to avoid stealth games because I've never understood how avoiding things in a game was "interactive" entertainment, and that's one bias that will likely always stick with me. I had none going into the idea of these "free to play" games however. They come in all shapes and sizes, all types and genres, and all manner of quality and quantity. But they all have something in common, something that just bugs the crap out of me and immediately turns me off. It's not the micro-transactions either. I know full well developers need to eat too, so I don't begrudge this practice. Though, some handle it better than others to be sure. My issue is simply, what am I supposed to be doing here?
This isn't a question of how to play a game either. This is a question of, what did the designers intend for me to do, or rather what am I supposed to have to beat this game? In game development, designers give you things to beat the game. In Mario you are given Mushrooms at specific points in the game to make you bigger, and give you a chance to overcome harder challenges to come. The Mushroom is there for a VERY specific reason and was tested and intended to be there for you.

Imagine though if you will, a Mario game with no Mushroom. That you are handed the game where you must play through it with no Mushroom, no Fire Flower, no Starman. It would still be do-able to be sure, but it would surely be much harder, and definitely not as fun. Frustration would overcome the enjoyment of the game. Now imagine the game where you had to buy the Mushroom, or buy a Fire Flower or Starman. Imagine 100 other items on top of that, which are meant to assist in some way. Having never played it before, would you know whether you needed a Mushroom to complete the game, or would you think you needed something else? How would you know for sure? Are you willing to pay for something you're not sure was intended by the designers to advance in the game?

This is my dilemma with the Free to Play model. You're thrown in with rags and a pea shooter in most and the pause menu is littered with items for you to buy. What do they do? Am I overbuying, or underbuying? Did I just waste my money? What are other people buying to win? It's these questions and complications that pulls me away from these games. I couldn't care less if a game was "pay to win" that's how gaming has been forever. I paid $60 for Bayonetta 2, it came with ALL the items the developer intended to include, the good ones and the crappy ones. It was up to me to mess around with them all to figure out best practices and best combinations to win, and I eventually did and really that's part of the fun. It was $60 though, did I pay to win? I guess so, but so what? The developers weren't trying to trick me with this transaction. They gave me what was intended, a completed product built with purpose which Free to Play never is. They constantly evolve, update with new items and classes, and patches can even come around nerfing something you were winning with before.

On top of that, you have the issue of pacing. A lot of free to play games with a "pay to win" structure are dismissed by me on the notion of pacing more often than not. X person who paid $200 will get to the endgame and best gear faster than you will who paid nothing. Again, I don't care about this. As a gamer I just want to beat the game, see those lovely end credits so I really don't care if I'm the tortes or the hare. But many free to play games have a pacing issue so ridiculous that even playing 300 hours won't get you to the end, or to a point of some satisfactory completion because of hefty limitations imposed on the player because they didn't buy stuff. Once again, I don't mind that the developers need the money, but what am I supposed to get? Do I get the $30 plan, the $60 one, or is the $200 plan the "intended" or ideal increment to enjoy the game properly. Usually I have no way of knowing this, and if I'm expected to pay upwards of $100 for a single game then I will say no thank you. Would a game release at $100 and justify the kind of content free to play delivers? I highly doubt it. Many of these lack what $30 games can offer, or even $15 indie games like Binding of Isaac which has over 400 items in it (just think of the pay to win structure that game could have had).

The way free to play is structured makes it hard for me to understand the developer's intentions, and hard for me to understand what the ideal experience is. More often than not, that "ideal" experience is met with more than I'd like to afford in their game and often feels like a bait and switch. I don't think these developers understand that gamers don't mind buying your game if it's good, they just want to know what they should buy and don't want to feel cheated. It's a hard balancing act to be sure, and maybe it will never be a model that I can ever understand being such an old school gamer going back to the age of Atari.

So, I guess I have a bias against Free to Play games and it's not that I'm against paying for good content, I'm just not understanding what the "good" content is supposed to be.

*"You've reached the allotted number of quests for the day. Pay $10 for more quests or fuck off"*

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Bayonetta 2 - Review

It's hard to review a game that's perfect in every conceivable way....

So I won't....

It's perfect, go buy it.

*Did you buy it yet? Get on that!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Nintendo vs Mobile Gaming

I'm getting pretty tired of seeing articles about how Nintendo should get into the mobile gaming space. What is amusing about these articles is you really never see one of them on a dedicated gaming website, but instead on some analyst site, or news site. What sparked the debate was mainly from Nintendo's own stockholder's meetings last year when the Wii U was struggling even more than predicted. A transcript of that meeting was released where some at the meeting (who also do not understand the gaming market well at all ((seriously read the transcript they ask some honestly dumb questions)).

One of the things they bring up is mobile gaming and why Nintendo hasn't sought any revenue from that area of the market. What really bothers me about these suggestions isn't just that Iwata or Miyamoto doesn't feel there's profit to be had there or that they fear it will hurt sales of the 3DS, both logical assumptions, but that none of these analysts understands Nindendo's business model and how they've functioned all these years.

Nintendo is probably the most paranoid company in the world. They hold everything close to the chest and nothing more-so than their in house properties such as Mario, Zelda, etc. Their company model is entirely built on their hardware, and they need Mario to sell that hardware. They have stated in the past that if they ever leave the hardware business they would be done making games too. They won't become what Sega has become, a game publisher. They don't even VIEW themselves as game publishers for the most part. They view themselves as a company that makes hardware. They are not interested in making games for consoles they can't sell.

They not only see making a Mario game on the iPhone as an affront to sales of the 3DS, they see it even worse than that. Not only do they feel that would hurt the sales of their system by offering a Mario alternative, they see Mario as something that will SELL their 3DS. It's not so much that they mind you are buying an iPhone, but they want you to buy a 3DS too, and they're not going to do that by wasting energy and time making a Mario game on the iPhone. The software they make is strictly there to sell their systems, period. That's how they view this game business. Sell the console first and the rest falls into place, that's their business model. Once they sell you the console then everything else begins, sales of controllers, accessories, and yes, more games. But they always care about the consumer that doesn't own their systems yet.

Whether they are right or not about this stance, that IS their stance and their business model from ground up. They are very slow to change and very nervous about being in competition with their own hardware which is perfectly understandable. It's why Microsoft didn't want to put Halo on PC, they wanted to sell Xboxes. They reluctantly did eventually, but we haven't seen another Halo game on PC since Halo 2, methinks they took a page from Nintendo. If you want to sell consoles you limit the choices consumers have about getting the software they want. That's why first party games are so important to Nintendo and why they don't give a rats ass about third party games. They want to sell the consoles, period. Get with the program "analysts."

This is why you rarely see these articles on actual gaming sites because they KNOW Nintendo like I do, and they know it's absurd to suggest it.

*I am picturing Mario as an Angry Bird flying at a pile of Goombas....that could be fun...*

Monday, October 20, 2014

Time Heals All Games?

I have recently been running a test on a theory I had about 'bad games' or games when I played them I was disappointed in. The theory I had was that over time, my opinion of a game will change for the better. I've found that as I've aged I get more forgiving of a game's flaws, or notice them less, or even compare it to the current state of games and things I hate about them and have the old saying, "in my day" fond reflection on them.

Now I haven't taken this theory too far back yet, but my inclinations began by playing the PC re-release of Final Fantasy 8. I loathed this game when it came out. Firstly, it was a love story, a romantic drama and it didn't do it very well at all. It's not my cup of tea. I much preferred a fantasy or sci-fi setting for a game in which the story centers around a great protagonist and a great villain like what FF6 or FF7 gave me. I played it through again though recently, and, well it's still a god awful love story to be sure, but I noticed I was enjoying the battle system a lot more. Having been my third play-through of the game I was very familiar with it by now and knew what I had to do so I wasn't fumbling around a 200 page Brady Games strategy guide for my 40 hour trek. It made the game more enjoyable, and thus my opinion of it has softened from vile hatred to it's not so bad.

Similarly, I recently played through Bioshock 2 again and while my initial opinion of Bioshock 2 was basically, "it's not as good as the first," it was a much harsher opinion of it than I have now. I actually believe 2 is better than 1 now (though Infinite is the best still). At first I argued 1 was the best because it actually has a boss fight and your activities around Rapture a much more varied than Bioshock 2. But, I was ignoring how many great improvements 2 had.

Firstly, the characters of 2 are much more interesting. Sure, we all love Andrew Ryan from the first game, but the protagonist wasn't as involved as 2's was. In 2, you are the first Big Daddy, and you have a direct relationship with Elanor which gives the game tension and suspense throughout as you uncover their history. It's not nearly as detached as the first game. Also, the combat in Bioshock 2 is better as well as you get to wield a gun and magic at the same time. The music I also found to be much better also.

Bioshock 2 is really only mired in how you collect Adam as it's very repetitious...and also makes no sense. In 1 you kill a Big Daddy and choose to save or suck dry a little sister. In 2 you kill a Big Daddy and then you have to make her collect more Adam before you choose to save her or suck her dry? Why? It's very clearly tedious filler.

Never the less, my opinion of the game overall changed for the positive as years passed. I'm down to my last example though as I don't normally force myself to play a game that I remembered hating. Final Fantasy 12 is a game I absolutely hated when I played it. My opinion of it went like this:

"It's a game that starts off strong and then devolves into a 40 hour treasure hunt for Nethicite ignoring all the characters and their plights to basically retrieve what amounts to a nuclear bomb to win a war. The only two decent characters are Dr. Cid and Balthier. There's no airship or overworld despite having a pirate as one of the main characters who you are introduced as someone owning an airship. Characters actions makes no sense either. The battle system is an utter travesty as you have to rest your faith in the AI far too much. The License board should burn to the ground with how incredibly stupid it is."

I had a list of other complaints too at the time, but a lot of them have phased away. Sure, some of these have remained. Characters do make really dumb decisions like right after Vaan and Basche escape the prison they return immediately back to Rabinastre. They also move freely in Rabinastre afterwards, despite being wanted. Or why is Old Arcadia guarded by 2 guards that you must do a ridiculous 20 minute side quest to pass rather than just take them down. Or when Fran sends you ahead in her village to find Mjirn she comes to you later saying the wood told her Mjirn isn't here. The very next set of lines she's accused of not being able to hear the wood now, and in shame Fran agrees that she can no longer hear it. But...the wood just accurately told you Mjirn isn't here!  Of course, I need not remind you of the "I'm Captain Basche" incident. Still, overall the writing is damn good. There's a compelling story in here about an ongoing war, corruption and takeover, political intrigue, assassinations, and of course a band of rebels who take back what is theirs against all odds.

The basic structure of the game's plot is Star Wars when you boil it down. I can't tell you how many times I see Balthier as Han Solo and Fran as Chewbacca. But at a deeper level the writing is really well done. There's actually character development going on here unlike FF13 had. Vayne was a really good soft spoken villain as well and we got to learn about his history with his brothers and how he had been shaped into the man he is by those experiences. Larsa is a nice complementary addition to the drama too. Balthier is actually funnier and better than I remembered him. Ashe is much less dull than I remember too, but she's still pretty dull sadly. She's mostly stressed out by the loss of her kingdom and husband in such a short time. I also like how they don't shoehorn in a love story where it didn't belong. Ashe remains loyal to her deceased husband, not that she needs to, but there's a war on and it doesn't make sense for her to adjust her focus on a new relationship so the story doesn't go that way. The absence of this speaks volumes where most games would shoehorn that in because it's easy mode drama. You can tell the writers really stuck to their guns on the story, and made sure to have the characters act in as much a natural way as they could. Sadly, Vaan and Penello are still pretty useless and not focused on at all. They are as Vaan puts it "just along for the ride."

Still, my impression of the story had improved greatly after playing it again. My negative thoughts on the battle system are also washed away. The gambit system, though reliant on AI is programmable down to such minute details that it rarely screws up. It does a much better job than FF13 did. The license board is also no longer a complaint of mine. Actually, it's one of the games strongest points. Many complained about not being able to equip certain items and that it's dumb to not be able to wear a hat you buy at the store because you don't have the license for it. Logically speaking I agree, but focusing on character growth and progression options the license board does a far better job than FF10 or FF13 did, let me explain why.

RPG's often try to have systems that makes the player feel like they are having an input into how the character is customized and how they are formed, FF12 actually succeeds at this with the license board. In FF10 or FF13 you are following a designated path for each character, there's really no reason for you to be there. You could just level up and have it say +5 for str, there would be no difference, but instead you have to pause the game and select +5 on the sphere grid or crystarium. It's senseless. But in FF12 you get to branch your characters out with what armor they wear, what weapons they should use, what magics they can learn etc. You've chosen their path through the game, you feel as though you've had a direct input in their growth and it makes the game more personal this way. Sure, it's not the BEST idea in the world, but it feels nice, it works within the system and it's interesting.

My major complaints of FF12 have softened quite a bit and the game looks much brighter in my eyes. Will time have the same effect on other games for me? Should I go back and try Grand Theft Auto 4 again, or Metal Gear Solid 2? I cringe at the thought, but the at the same time wonder if maybe it's not such a bad idea.

*Superman 64 still sucks by the way*

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Smash Brothers 3DS - Smashing Good Time


I'm not even sure why I'm writing this review, apparently 3 million people already bought this game. It's a wonderful addition to the Smash series so I'll just quickly go over why upgrading to this new game is worth it!

Smash Brothers Brawl had a lot of issues. It was too slow, the online was a mess, and it added in "tripping" which was a random occurrence when you run you could potentially trip. Absolutely no one liked this. Thankfully, all of these complaints were addressed by the new game. The tripping has been removed, the game has been sped up (still not to Melee standards), and the online works REALLY well for 1v1battles. I have 50 games under my belt and maybe only one or two games lagged, it was phenomenal.

Other positives are they also made it way easier to unlock characters which now takes 3 times less overall Smash matches to get them unlocked. It also boasts a massive roster that now includes Mega Man and Pac Man! Another lovely change is edge-guarding is no longer a thing. If you guard the edge the opponent can steal it from you, this opens up a lot more strategy and planning for matches rather than just be an edge camper. The game is way more interesting now from this minor adjustment. They also very closely listened to the fans about balance and so far this game feels pretty even with no obvious Meta Knight like Brawl had, though as usual the game seems to favor the faster characters. Yet another welcome change is they made every stage have an "Omega" mode which makes every stage a flat playing field so they can all be used competitively.

I believe that rounds out all the welcome additions. Though you can also add by subtracting too. They decided to remove the main single player campaign that everyone hated in Brawl, and I have yet to see anyone get annoyed by that move. Personally I don't mind little distraction modes like that, but in Brawl you were basically forced to do it. I think they could have kept it in if they made it optional. Luckily, every mode in this game is optional, you can play it any way you like.

I only have a few complaints about the game and most center around the online. While the 1v1 is SUPER solid it comes with drawbacks. You can't use items, and you are stuck with the Omega stages. As fun as competitive Smashing can be, Casual Smashing can be even more fun. It does have a casual online play mode though, but you're forced to play 4 man free for all, or a 4 man team game. Normally this isn't an issue, but the connection suffers greatly in these 4 man games and is damn near unplayable. I've only had a small handful of these matches run well, the vast majority are a slideshow. The best Casual match I  had was when two guys dropped and it turned into a 1v1 casual game with items. GREAT! They should have had a mode of 1v1 Casual online. That would have been perfect.

I also hear tell that local 4 man games lag heavily. Why? This is inexcusable. I haven't personally tried this, but I've heard about it from several sources and it's pretty disappointing. Some suggest turning off your Street Pass to make it work, but that's absurd, it should just work. I know Nintendo is releasing a New 3DS with more horsepower so possibly that one will fare better, but it's still inexcusable that local multiplayer lags.

The only other minor complaint is the controls. The Circle pad is not optimal for this game, but it's really not THAT bad either so it's just a minor annoyance. It's just not as good as a Cube controller, there's no way around that. The New 3DS will actually improve the game a lot letting you Smash attack with the second stick so that'll clear up most of the control issues.

Apart from that it's an amazing package. There's plenty of challenges to do, many game modes, many Trophies to find, and if you like 1v1 Online like I do then you'll always have something to do in this game.

*Hulk Smash too!*

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Why Am I Excited?

Today I turn 28...and I must be losing my mind. Square just announced they are releasing the Final Fantasy 13 trilogy on PC and Steam, for like $15 a game. If you've read this blog you'll find my personal trilogy of reviews on these three games and how much I hated them. Yet, this announcement fills me with excitement! WHY?

I mostly hated the story of the 13 series, it is dreadful, and makes no sense. The characters are bland and none of them are any fun. Admittedly, I DID have fun playing these games for the most part. Despite my undying hatred for how they did the battle systems, a lot of it was personal preference versus how it played, and they played well, but I would have done it differently. I was still sucked into these games from start to finish regardless eagerly awaiting every new battle I started.

But honestly, what is making me anticipate these games on PC? The novelty maybe? I love that my favorite games are coming on PC and Steam, and though 13 would never make that list of "favorites" it's a sign of things to come. It's a sign that game companies are looking at PC seriously again. After an 8 year drought of developers fearing pirates and lackluster PC sales they are crawling back slowly but surely.

Maybe this is what excites me most. Seeing all of this previously exclusive console games come to my PC is fantastic. I love having all of these AAA games in one lovely place on my Steam folder. It's so convenient. Plus...these prices! My GOD these prices! Investing in PC is by far the best thing I've ever done as a gamer. Not to mention I never trade games in, so it's perfect for me.

Still though...FF13 exciting me? Really? I think I am getting too old...

Friday, September 12, 2014

Game Design

Something that comes up often with gaming and people commenting about what is good and what is bad is the term "game design." People on the internet are full of opinions, and they will throw this term around all willy nilly without really understanding what they are doing. They will cry foul over the choices a developer made with regards to how your character levels up, or discuss bad AI, and then they'll say this was "bad game design." In some of these arguments they could very well be right, but you have to carefully phrase what you are talking about when you toss around this term and many do not understand this.

What is "game design" after all? Can't it be applied to everything about the game? Yes and no. The overall idea of game design asks a simple question, "What is the goal of x?" X can be anything from level layout, characters, weapons, graphics, etc. But the most important thing to understand when discussing game design is we have to look at what the game is trying to accomplish, what is the goal, and does that design choice accompany that goal in a positive way, or hinder it. Judging game design on this merit is far less subjective and much more objective, whereas just saying something is "bad" or "good" is entirely subjective.

A perfect example to use here is Metroid Prime 2 where they attempted to throw in multi-player combat. If you were to look at the game design of Metroid Prime you'll find that the game is entirely designed around player versus enemy AI, or what we call PVE. From the lock on system, to how Samus moves, the game is designed as a PVE experience and without heavy modification to this structure a PVP (player versus player) mode will ultimately not accompany the goal set out by the designers when they developed the game very well at all. To wit, the multi-player of Metroid Prime 2 was indeed, "badly designed."

It can be difficult to separate one's own personal opinion versus the objective view you should have when discussing whether a game was badly designed or not. Another example would be Ninja Gaiden Sigma in any section where platforming around the environment unsuccessfully can lead to a detrimental setback for the player. This is badly designed because platforming in Ninja Gaiden was poorly implemented and does not fit with the game's overall design well, and then to punish the player for attempting to jump around the area skillfully when it doesn't control right is really bad design. The difference here is the subjective statement of the game having bad jumping mechanics, and the objective statement that the game also has bad level design because of this badly done mechanic. Having a jump mechanic is in and of itself not a "bad design" but the implementation of it in levels that don't accent it certainly is. The level design needs to accent the game's strengths, and when it fails to do that, then you can say it was badly designed.

Most gamers will agree that any mission involving having to protect an AI is another good example of bad design and they would be right. In most cases, games have not developed AI well enough to work in the situations they are attempting. And, in most cases the game's central goal is rarely that of "protecting" something but instead of "killing everything." It would be apt to call that segment poorly designed as they are not supporting the game's central goal with this mission type, nor does the game possess the infrastructure to handle it well.

To further assist in understanding the difference, take this hypothetical example. The goal of designing a soccer ball would be to make one that rolls well, bounces, and can go a good distance when hit. In thinking of how do I make such an object, the first thing you should consider is that you should make it round. A poorly designed soccer ball would therefore be square as it is not adhering to the goals of what this object needs to perform in use.

Needless to say that doesn't mean an opinion on "design" is entirely objective either, because it does include some subjectivity. Take for example an upgrade system in a game. Someone may feel that the upgrade system supports the design of the game very well, while someone else may feel otherwise. Both can have their logically reasoned points, but the difficulty in the argument comes in ensuring you are removing your personal preference in which upgrade system you'd like to see versus how well it works with the game.

A great example here would be Final Fantasy 8. Subjectively I can discuss all the many ways FF8's upgrading system is heavily flawed. How it homogenizes all the characters making them blank slates for you to dictate how they'll perform which removes personality to the characters, how the levels don't matter in the slightest, how tedious it is to acquire materials for the upgrading system, etc. While I'd vastly prefer the design used in previous titles, I have to once again ask myself if the design of it is "bad." Though I still think even this is still somewhat bad design, it's much less harsh of a review than my personal opinion of it. Did the developer succeed at what they were trying to accomplish with it? I would say they very much did. This is a game where you can fully customize your characters how you see fit, equip them with spells, dictate their health, strength, resistances, speed, etc, to such a meticulously high degree and it's done fairly well with minimal tedium. Where the bad design might come in to play here, is it was very confusing early on. Otherwise the system does work.

So there you have it, my overly complex understanding of game design and how it should be viewed more objectively than people tend to on the internet. Am I being a little too picky here? Absolutely, but I find it all fascinating none the less.

*Why is my character's sword 8 times his body length? What dumbass designed it this way?*