Sunday, May 29, 2011

Battlestar Galactica, on Emergent Gameplay for Real

Battlestar Galactica is a board game in which three to six people work together to negotiate crises, manage political and military responsibilities, and fight off enemies in space combat. There are two sides: the humans, and their rebelling robotic creations, the Cylons. Each player is dealt a secret loyalty card. Roughly one third of the players are told they are on the Cylon team, either at the beginning of the game or part way through the game. The Cylon players must find ways to sabotage the human players' effort, yet keep from being discovered, lest the human players put them in the Brig and limit the amount of influence they have in the game. Ultimately, a Cylon player can reveal himself as such and gain access to a different set of abilities, but it's beneficial (and much more fun) for the Cylon player to remain hidden, working their evil plans while denying their true loyalty.

It's quite normal for the accusations to start flying early in the game, as the players find bits of evidence of sabotage during the course of crisis management, in which players contribute help or sabotage anonymously (though careful deduction can point to the saboteurs). Near the end of the game, if no Cylon players have revealed themselves, it's usually because they have a particularly devious plan up their sleeve, and it becomes even more important for the human players to identify and oust the Cylons. The paranoia rises as the humans near their destination, and victory for their side.

So the mechanic for identifying the traitor players is the loyalty deck, which is composed of cards that say whether or not you're a Cylon. Each player gets one card at the beginning of the game, and another one halfway through the game. If a player got a You Are Not a Cylon card at the beginning of the game, but received a You Are a Cylon halfway through, they have to switch sides immediately. Even the players have a certain trepidation about this event. The deck is constructed with enough cards so that about a third of the players will get a You Are a Cylon card.

What I really love about the game is the emergent trash talk, accusations, and analysis of player behavior. You draw Politics cards but you say you can't help us negotiate this crisis that requires Politics? You must be a Cylon. You're hoarding your Quorum cards instead of using them to improve Morale? Sounds like a Cylon to me. You just repaired the FTL Control room instead of our damaged Vipers? Toaster loving fracker, to the Airlock with you.

One time I screwed up and didn't add the You Are a Cylon cards to the loyalty deck, and everybody got You Are Not a Cylon cards. As the game progressed and we were all honestly playing for the human side, we became frantic as we realized that nobody appeared to do anything bad. The game was going quite well for us, but we became driven to find the traitors, and death threats were made over the smallest suspicious infractions; actions that were heroically helpful became reasons for indictment because of their superlativeness. I gave a few open suggestions of how a Cylon player might try to influence the game for their side, just in case one of the players was confused about what they should do, and for my efforts, the Admiral stripped me of my Presidency in a military coup. Of course, this made me think the Admiral was a Cylon. My girlfriend, who can usually guess which side I'm playing, didn't know what to think.

When we won the game and all revealed our You Are Not A Cylon loyalty cards, our fervor turned to sheepishness and shame.

It was truly the most interesting game of BSG I've played, even considering that the actual goal of winning was easily obtained (and was pretty boring without any opposition). The inter-player conflict that the game so carefully crafts was pitched to a level that the rules alone could never create (helped along by gin, tonic, and resentment - always a good time). The only problem is that now everybody suspects me of spiking the deck, and I could never get away with it again.

But it's the thought that counts.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Bionic Commando, on rediscovering old games

And, no, I mean the new one, not the old one. I picked up the new Bionic Commando when it first came out, totally psyched to see a modern remake of one of my favorite NES games, only to put it down only a few hours later, frustrated beyond recovery at the difficulty and lack of save points. I was sad and angry at the same time, and turned to easier and more accessible games of the season.

A while later, I became obsessed with Demon Souls, reveling in a game that forced me to master it, to love it for all its brutality and lack of comfortable reward schedule. I was happy and relieved to finally put it down, satiated, and turn to more friendly games. But lately, after a few months of World of Warcraft's polished caress, I've been looking for a little abuse.

Returning to Bionic Commando, I rediscovered why I initially didn't like it. The controls are just a little too difficult, and the checkpoints way too far apart. Carefully picking my way across the elevated highways strewn across Ascension City, I had a familiar feeling. Spend twenty minutes fighting the controls, die, scream in frustration at lost progress, repeat. This time do it in ten, and make it a little further. Then in five, and a little further. Soon I was swinging through floating minefields with skill, feeling like I really earned it, when I had a flashback to the sound of crows and the glow of red eyed knights... and suddenly got it.

Sometimes a game just doesn't arrive in your life at the right time, and it has to go back on the shelf, forgotten, until you're ready for it. But while my co-workers are shooting plasma bolts at space zombies or piloting sackboys around on giant cats, this week I'm happily swinging to my death and drowning by my own bionic arm.

Cataclysm, on the M's in MMO

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm has done many interesting things to the 1-15 and 80-85 level single player experience. The moment to moment gameplay has been improved all around; the quests are more interesting, the plot is more exciting, and a lot of the practical elements of travel and questing have been streamlined. However, these changes have affected the Massively Multiplayer part of MMO, and deserve some critical attention.

For one thing, it takes a lot more suspension of disbelief to engage the story. There has always been a problem in creating a believable narrative in WoW. As you return to an NPC to collect your reward for killing the bad guy and saving the town, you see another player talking to the same NPC, picking up the quest to do the same thing. It doesn't make sense, but we excuse it because of the nature of the game. There's an acceptance of multiple things happening at the same time, in multiple states of progression, like some kind of collapsed quantum universe.

However, with the expanded use of a technology Blizzard call phasing, in which the players are actually placed in different versions of the world according to what they've accomplished, the stories have expanded to make the player even more central. Now, you're not just the one who killed the bad guy and saved the town before moving on to the next self-contained segment of story, but you're a central character in eight hours of gameplay. This is cool for the player, but when you come out of it and realize that everybody else in your race had the same experience, it raises some questions about the point of MMO's in the first place. Maybe you could all have fended off the bandits of Westfall, but could you all have been the one to expose the Twilight Cult? Should an MMO be a single player experience in which you happen to be on a server with a bunch of other players having the same experience, and you just get together for dungeons and raids? Or should an MMO create stories in which players play roles that contribute to a shared storyline?

Furthermore, in Cataclysm's attempt to make a stronger single player experience, its tools for doing so have shown lacking. There are times in the Goblin starter zone where the story is advanced by declarative sentences printed in big yellow letters on the screen. Instead of doing what other video games do through cutscenes or in-game animations, Cataclysm delivers with the awkwardness of a writing student who hasn't learned "show don't tell" yet. Cataclysm does have more cutscenes, though. Some are good; I enjoyed the Goblin flight from their exploding island. However, the assault on the Vortex in Vashj'ir, where the player has to sit alone, passively, in a submarine for almost ten minutes listening to NPC's deliver emotes and Saturday-morning-cartoon dialog, is exactly the opposite of what I want in an MMO.

All this is bizarre to me, since most of the writing in WoW is a fantastic mix of high fantasy and pop-culture humor, and Blizzard is a master of constructing cutscenes and pacing gameplay. I'm not quite sure what happened, but in an attempt to create a better single player experience, it's grown some sore thumbs that would make me put down the game if there weren't such an excellent MMO behind it. However, as much as these things bug me, I still can't deny how it all still just works. Never once was I left not knowing where to go next or at a loss of things to do. The story is always in service of the gameplay, however polished or awkward it may have to be to do so.

On the multiplayer practical side, grouping in dungeons has never been easier in WoW, and yet never more lonely. Gone are the long hours of trying to get a group together, traveling there, summoning people, explaining things, and preparing for the first pull. The new dungeon finder makes it easy for people across servers to find groups and jump into an instance in minutes. However, also gone are the interactions that let you really build connections with people on your own server that you would see over and over again. Because the dungeon finder places you in a group of people you will never see again, there is no incentive to get to know each other or even say hello. It's a little sad to me, though I think it's a net gain, as it's also never been easier to find a guild that fits with your play style and personality. So it's a little harder to meet new people outside of a guild, but it's much easier to run an instance if you only have an hour to play.

Where the game still shines for me, though, is the class mechanics. I have spent the majority of my time in Azeroth being a healer, and out of the past five or six years, the mechanics of healing are the best they've ever been, which is to say they used to be pretty boring (though still fun enough for me to play for hundreds of hours). The new priest abilities provide flexibility and tactical decisions while still being fairly simple and not usually requiring more than six hotkeyed spells. While I won't stick around long enough to see end-game raids, the five man healing I've done has been challenging and fun. With the cheap and convenient dual spec system, there is no penalty for being a Holy priest, as anybody who leveled to 60 as Holy can remember.

For all my bitching, don't get me wrong; I think that WoW is the best it's ever been, though it's really a very different game than it was when it first launched. While this is to be expected and commended, it raises some questions about the MMO-ness of the world's most popular MMO. At the height of its popularity, there has never been a better time for another game to come in and redefine what MMO's should be. Until then, I'll be doing Gnomer runs with my goblin guild and spending way too much time picking flowers.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Video Game Day 2010

Today I am taking the day off work to play video games. This is not a lazy shirking of my duties, but an attempt to expel that nagging feeling of regret I experience when I see a game on the shelf at work that I was so excited about, read so much about, but never played. I’ve borrowed four games that I have been wanting to play for as much as a year but have not had the chance. I plan to play each game for about an hour and a half, so what’s recorded here are merely first impressions.


I immediately like the art and cinematic direction; it seems straight out of comics and graphic novels. This is like an animated Image Comics title (I haven’t read comics in over ten years, so that may be way off base). Some of the frames look hand drawn, and I expect to see text bubbles any second.

I’m struggling a bit with the combat mechanics. I think I’m doing okay... Until three deaths at the first miniboss. Combat has a different pacing then I’m used to; I’m trying to play as if the game had the even-tempered free flow of Batman: Arkham’s combat, or the measured, slow precision of Demon's Souls.

I have much more success when I stop being a wuss and don't hang back and wait for an opening. Instead I powerslide in and start wailing on the guy, and when I see his attack animation, I powerslide back out for a second, and then back in more some more wailing. It’s less interactive, but it feels more bad-ass, and fits better with the game.

I’ve reached my first hub-like zone and got a power to unlock one of the areas. This seems much more familiar, and I understand the associations I’ve heard made with Zelda and Metroid. This seems like a game I could really get into.

I've played a few of the challenge rooms and have unlocked some of the ability upgrades and a new weapon - a scythe - and can definitely see where this game is going. The combat has clicked with me and seems very intuitive now. I don't really play a lot of combo based fighting games like this, so maybe this is something I should check out some more.

Red Faction: Guerrilla

I was super excited about this series for a long time, but never played them, for whatever reason. Aside with the grappling hook arm of Bionic Commando, I can’t think of another more exciting game mechanic than destructible buildings with full physics.

I’m surprised by how quickly the game gets the story out of way, gives me a sledgehammer, and tells me to go wreck a building. Okay! Toppling buildings feels very good to me; it’s just complex enough that I have to think about destroying supporting beams and avoid being hit by the building as it falls, but I can still just go in there, start swinging, and have fun.

Shooting is very easy, and unexciting. It's almost a matter of pointing and clicking, and lacks punch to the experience. Demolition is much more fun, so much so that I regret having to slow down and shoot guys. Throwing charges at them and laying traps for their vehicles is a lot more fun, and I forget I even have a gun. There’s an ambush mission that I failed a few times until I used explosives to drop a bridge on the invading convoy. Awesome.

This was a solid two hours of fun. I finished the first zone. There were different kinds of missions with just enough variation to keep me interested, but never too overwhelming. I would like to play some multiplayer matches with friends or at a LAN party; flanking the enemy by bashing in the rear of their building and tossing in a few charges to flush them out is priceless.


Pressing start was awesome! What a way to begin a game. I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t seen it. That moment is enough to get me excited about the unfolding narrative and dive right in.

After a slower moving game like Red Faction, this game feels really fast. The player moves and turns much faster, and the standard electronic bolt shot pops right off, with a high firing rate. I spend more than a few minutes running around and blasting cars, which feels very satisfactory.

I’m not as annoyed by the moral choice moments that stop the game and ask you to make a decision. It gives me a chance to stop and think about how to role play my character, or just what reactions I want to see from the NPC’s. There’s a scene where I’m helping a dude try to escape across a bridge that really builds some tension and makes me feel like I’m caught up in an event. It seems like both types of pacing are represented.

Uncharted 2

I’ve gone through my hour and a half without stopping to write. I guess that speaks to the pacing and flow of this game. If you had asked me before if I wanted to play through an interactive Indiana Jones video game, I would’ve said, “no,” and instead pulled out my copy of Shadow of the Colossus. But I really like the story of Uncharted 2 despite that I don’t think I should. I think this is a sign of craft over genre winning me over.

It also has some gamey elements. I was captured about ten times in the beginning of the level where I had to sneak past some palace guards; that was annoying and felt somewhat like I was playing a plat former, trying to find the exactly correct path through a maze.

It doesn't seem very open to different playstyles, but small increments of progression are very rewarding with all the in-game dialog, camera angles, and art, so the challenge of figuring out what they want me to do doesn't ever become annoying.

The next level has become a cover-based firefight, and this is where I start to lose interest. I haven’t given the game enough time to discover the right rhythm of combat, like how much I can run-and-gun and how much I have to sit and cover and take pot shots. A few times I was flanked and felt like guys were spawning in behind me. But throughout, I can tell there is a lot of attention to creating a very particular experience, and I really appreciate that in a game. I think if this game were more to my esthetic liking, I’d be all over it, but for everything it does well, it doesn’t have the mechanics gimmicks to draw me in (which totally says more about me than the game).

This has been Video Game Day 2010.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Board Gaming on the iPad

I'm primarily a video gamer, but I play my share of board games. I would rather play Settlers with than talk to people at parties, I have stress dreams about Arkham Horror, and I've recently started teaching and running board games at a local yearly convention, Templecon. While friends and co-workers often provide enough of an outlet for board gaming, I often find myself wanting to have a similar experience in a more solitaire or smaller scale.

Apple marketed the iPad as being a magical, revolutionary device. While most people will be a little critical of that statement, I can wholeheartedly agree that it has opened up a new form of board gaming. With several implementations of popular board games, offering simpler set up and single player modes for a few of my favorites, the iPad has the potential to at least be a small revolution in board gaming.

SmallWorld is a great, fun game that is generally accessible and appealing to new gamers, yet deep enough to have legs for veterans. But with over a hundred tiles and tokens to maintain, it can be a little unwieldily. Anybody ever ask you if you want to play a quick game of SmallWorld? It's not really possible. While experienced players can complete a game in 20 or 30 minutes, the setup, teardown, and tile pushing during turns extends that a significant amount. The iPad version, while limited to two player games only, makes a strong case for digital board gaming. Setup is instant, stacks of tiles are a breeze to manipulate, and the medium suits the game perfectly because SmallWorld doesn't have cards, and therefore doesn't require closed hands. The device can sit in between two players and emulate all the good parts of the real world experience. The art really shines on the iPad, and the display's high resolution faithfully represents the board and pieces.

Settlers of Catan for the iPhone and iPad fares less well. The problem here is that hands are secret, so there's a lot of dialog boxes like, "please hand over to player 2." When it comes time to trade resources, each trade requires multiple handing back and forth of the device. However, as a solo experience against AI, it's great; I can finally play Catan when I want, where I want, and with a bunch of dumbass opponents who I can usually beat. The creators did a good job with this version, but if they could solve the problem of hidden hands, maybe like how Scrabble has done by allowing iPhones and iPods to act as peripherals to view your tiles privately, this would be a fantastic iPad game. The same developers are working on an iPad version, so we'll see.

I picked up the tile-placing game Ingenious on the iPhone without having played it in board format, and after seeing the digital version, I don't think I ever want to. The game requires tactics that live up to its name, but I can only imagine that scoring by hand is Infuriating. Here's an example of computers doing what they do best; calculating numbers. I love the game, but I would never want to have to count all the points each player is getting every turn. There are a few other Reiner Knizia card games out there which fare as well.

I've also been logging a lot of time in the solitaire version of Carcassone for the iPhone, which has the player placing gorgeously rendered tiles to build roads and castles in a particular order. The multiplayer version is as good. At some point in every game, though, I just wish the screen were bigger; as the game progresses, the board's play space only gets larger, and a device like the iPad can only be surpassed by one with a larger screen. Please port this to the iPad! Perhaps Apple can start thinking about a table-sized device like Microsoft's?

As much disdain as you might have for the explosion of casual games on the iPhone and iPad platform, there are some really great ports of board games coming out, made by developers with obvious love for the games. If anybody knows of any others, please share! Until then, I'm waiting patiently for an iPad version of Arkham Horror.

PC Gaming

I've been a Mac user since 1990. I saw SimCity in a store, and was captivated by the colors, the menu system, and the iconography. I demanded that the next family computer be a Macintosh LC. I bought a Mac Classic with my own money on which to run a BBS. In the late 90's I installed MkLinux on a Powertower 180. Gaming without a discrete graphics card, BBS server on an all-in-one, and Linux on a closed platform; for a very long time I have been using the right platform for the wrong reasons. Ironically, the advent of Steam for Mac finally inspired me to build a gaming PC.

My current computer is an iMac from 2007. It has a huge, beautiful 24" screen that looks just as good as the day it arrived. I originally bought it to placate my World of Warcraft gaming, but soon after gave up the game. Since then it's been a fantastic machine for all that other stuff that you use computers for, like spreadsheets and Flash games. And when Steam came out, I thought I'd finally get to play some real games on it. I downloaded Portal (which I had played years earlier on Xbox, don't worry), booted it up... and found out that my video card was too old. What do iMac owners do when faced with such a problem? They have to buy brand new computers.

That's just wrong, right? I want a gaming computer, but one that I can plug into my TV and use from the couch. After looking at new Mac prices, considering the underpowered 2010 Mini, and doing some research, I found that I can build a machine that will play everything I wanted to play on the PC right now for $800, while a comparable Mac would cost twice as much or require me to sit at a desk. Apple just isn't interested in making a gaming computer for me.

What Steam for Mac really did was make me realize how much I was missing by not being able to play PC games, and by offering me some of that, it made me want the whole thing. So come this fall, probably with the release of Cataclysm (which I just want to check out, just a little, I promise), I will be building a gaming PC.

Batman Arkham Asylum

I picked up a copy of Batman: Arkham Asylum based solely on reviews, despite having no interest in the subject matter. The podcast Gamers With Jobs, whose tastes generally fall in line with mine, raved about it when it came out, but it took the accolades of co-workers before I gave it a chance. I mainly picked it up because it was cheap and reportedly had a fantastic melee fighting system, but before I knew it I was totally engrossed.

Engrossed--despite the subject matter. I don't really like the old DC Golden Age treatment; I think the heroes and villains have goofy names and look dumb, but I think the game walks a good line by making Batman and Joker interesting characters. But the animation and character art of Batman totally sold me. I still find myself using Batman's door opening animation on the bathroom door at work, pulling it open as I whip my cape around and hurl myself through the doorway. I set myself up to only like only the combat mechanics, but ended up loving the character treatments and animation.

I honestly didn't really get the game at first. I played an hour or two and was confused by the scope. I wasn't sure where the game was going to take me and how big or small it would be. Then I picked it up when I was home with a cold and played it for three days straight. Batman has exactly what I like about Zelda and Metroid games: overworlds and repeated trips through content that is opened up with new items. It has a perfect mix of size and variability that rewards exploration, yet I could pick up the game in the middle and instantly know where to go and what to do next with solid level design and a good map system. It's rare for a game to leave that kind of impression on me, especially when I wasn't really looking for it.

In fact, I kind of hope that the new Zelda learns a little bit from Batman. I really appreciated that the combat and item use mechanics in Batman built up evenly through the entire game, and that all boss battles up to the final one used skills you had learned throughout the game. It never switched things up and introduced a new mini game you just had to pound through to kill a boss; every boss battle had me feeling prepared and confident, yet still challenged me and left me feeling accomplished. The combat permeated the entire game, and it was simple, elegant, deep, and satisfying, and reminded me that a game franchise doesn't have to break new ground to be just right.