Friday, November 30, 2007

Co-op RPGs?

After my last post, Nathan reminded me about a co-op game that I had forgotten about: Final Fantasy III (as it was called then, it is now more commonly called Final Fantasy 6). I am not sure how many people know about it today, but Final Fantasy III for the SNES had a multiplayer option where control of the characters could be divided up between Player 1 and Player 2 during battle. Field gameplay remained strictly single-player, with the odd exception of the overworld, where both players could simultaneously control the same character's movement. This was an odd version of asymmetrical co-op, the concept I brought up in my last post.

My brother and I usually play through RPGs together. While only one of us actually plays through the game and makes the final decisions, the other watches through the game to enjoy the story and help remember details, think through puzzles, and generally try to make helpful decisions. The ability to allow my brother to help out in a more direct fashion while I  played through a game was something I enjoyed. It did not make combat any easier, since only one of us could make decisions at a time. However, it was a very different experience, where the two of us had to plan out battle strategies together quickly under the pressure of the Active Time Battle System. I enjoyed it. We usually divided control of the characters based on which characters were our personal favorites. Thus, my brother mastered Sabin's Blitz inputs, while I never was able to even remember what they were.

Final Fantasy III was not even the first time an RPG had a co-op feature. Final Fantasy II (now more correctly referred to as Final Fantasy 4) for the SNES accepted input from both controller ports simultaneously. It might have been merely a bug, but it allowed for a similar experience to FFIII's multiplayer, if somewhat more chaotic. Unfortunately, FFIII for the SNES was the last time a traditional console RPG had a multiplayer co-op option. Final Fantasy VII dropped the concept completely, and the multiplayer features were even removed from the Playstation remakes of FFIV and FFVI.

Yet, I still think that asymmetrical co-op in normally single-player RPGs is an interesting concept that is worth taking a second look at. It could be implemented in a similar fashion to what was originally done in FFVI with very little effort. With even more effort, something truly original could be done.

EDIT: A few hours after publishing this, I realized that I had made a critical oversight: there is one RPG series that has supported co-op for mot of its existence: the Tales of... series. As an example, Tales of Symphonia for the Gamecube could support up to four players at once during battle sequences. Since the Tales of... series uses a real time battle system that plays a lot like an action game, there is even a tactical advantage in having a second player controlling one of the characters, rather than an AI. The Tales of... series is an example of how co-op in a genre that traditionally doesn't have multiplayer can make a game or series stand out.

I also think that there is still room to expand the idea of RPG co-op, particularly in the areas of puzzle solving and exploration.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn Part 3

Game Completion: In the middle of Part 3, Chapter 5

I really like the level design in this game. Each chapter feels fairly unique, with distinct objectives and complications. I can only recall one or two stages so far that are simple battles in which you just need to rout an enemy or defeat a boss. Interesting objectives are so common that, in one mission, the lack of any such complications made me rather paranoid that something would happen towards the end to make things more difficult (I admit I was rather disappointed when it turned out it was just a simple battle).

Some interesting things this game does in level design, especially compared to previous Fire Emblm games, are:

1) The different chapters have many kinds of Victory Objective. With distinct Rout, Defeat Boss, Defend, Arrive, Sieze, and Escape objectives, as well as few which are outside of those common types (like the objective of mission 3-3). Various creative uses of these objectives, especially the Arrive command (such as in mission 3-Prologue), keeps the stages from feeling repetative. Having multiple wining conditions, especially in the otherwise long and potentially boring Defend missions, is also a nice feature.

2) Most levels have some kind of incentive that encourage the player to stay on the offensive. The Fire Emblem games are easiest if you play cautiously and advance slowly, but are much more fun if you push as quickly as you can and push your ability to respond to attacks to the limit. This game rewards the latter by both traditional methods for a Fire Emblem game, like having Thieves and Bandits who will destroy towns and rob treasure chests if you progress too slowly, and a newer, but very common in this game, method of having civilians and allied soldiers on the battlefied who can be saved. As far as I can tell, keeping allied and civilian units alive and letting them escapape the battle rewards the player with valuable bonus experience in this game. There are even some stages which ask the player to avoid killing enemies, an interesting and novel challenge for the series. Previous Fire Emblem games might only have a single stage with nameless allies that need rescuing, and often you only receive an item for saving them, so the fact that they apear so often in this game is a nice change.

3) The actual terrain of the battle is often quite varied and interesting. The addition of different levels of height, and gaps that can be climbed, both add a lot to the game experience.

Of course, there are a few problems with the level design, mostly stemming from excessively powerful defensive locations, and terrain that is more difficult to traverse than is necessary. In a game where three-to-one odds can be fatal, one mission (2-Endgame) has a choke-point that allowed a single character on my side hold back a constantly spawning group of enemies which could number up to sixteen or more at a time, and in other missions the enemies hold almost equally powerful locations. Another problem is that heavily armored characters and mounted characters seem to be punished too much by rough terrain, especially gaps that require climbing. Armored characters already have less movement than other characters, and mounted characters suffer lower caps on their stats (and penalties on movement in indoor stages), so these characters end up being all but useless on some stages. At the same time, flying characters (who might be stronger and more common than mounted characters) don't suffer these penalties and are necessary to get through some stages with a large number of choke-points, so they end up being rather unbalanced with horse-riding units.

That about covers stage design so far... Before I forget, I should mention that I really like the addition of a mid-battle save (rather than just a suspend) to the fire Emblem series. It eases a lot of frustrations with replaying a mission many times to make up for a minor mistake, and permits the player to be more daring in battle (which adds to the effect of #2 above), making the game more fun.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Co-op Gameplay on Consoles

I have always been drawn to games that have good cooperative gameplay. Since I have a twin brother who is also into video games, it is nice to be able to play the same game as him at the same time. It is no wonder that some of my favorite games from my childhood were the SNES classics Secret of Mana and Kirby's Superstar.

Back in the days of the NES and SNES, cooperative gameplay was not uncommon. Part of it was certainly the greater influence of arcades back in those years. Cooperative beat-em-ups like Final Fight and Co-op shooters like Contra used to be a staple of arcades. Some arcade games, like the old Simpsons arcade game, supported up to 4 players at once. In those days, the cooperative mode of games was inseparable from the main game mode. In fact, it was often possible for a second player to join a game in the middle of a play session.

Unfortunately, there ha not been very many really good examples of cooperative gameplay being a major selling point of a game ever since the transition to 3D games in the Playstation era. The biggest reason is that 3D games are not well suited to co-op gameplay. In order to have effective co-op gameplay, all of the players need to be able to see their own characters at the same time. This was not a problem in the days of 2D sprite based games, but it is a major problem for 3D games, where having a functioning camera is hard enough when there is only one character. This has led to an unfortunate decline in co-op games over the years. Nowadays, only a handful of games have cooperative play.

There are really only a handful of ways to handle cooperative game in a 3D game. The first and most common method is using split-screen. Unfortunately, splitting the screen in half (or more) severely limits the visual range of the players. It also forces the designers to scrunch the HUD of a game into a smaller area. Larger HDTVs can lessen these problems, but it doesn't change the fact that players will compare the split-screen game to the single-player game experience. Online cooperative gameplay gets around the limitations of split-screen, but it doesn't allow for two people in the same room (such as me and my brother) to enjoy the co-op mode.

In order for a 3D game to have multiple players looking at the same screen at once, there are still a few options. The first option is to use a static camera that looks down on a large area that contains all of the characters. Essentially, a developer has to emulate the effect of a 2D game. Unfortunately, this approach constrains the actions of the players. The characters, as is usually the case in old side-scrolling 2D co-op games, would not have the ability to split up and handle different objectives. Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles and the forthcoming Super Smash Bros. Brawl use this approach. The other approach is to use asymmetric characters in the co-op mode. This is done in the N64 game Jet Force Gemini, where one player controlled the main character and his movement, and the other player controlled a floating robot named Floyd that floated next to the main character's head, and could shoot at any target on screen. The recently released Super Mario Galaxy uses a similar mechanic. This solution relegates the second player to a supporting role, but it does have the advantage that the second player can theoretically join in at any time, as was the case in the arcade days.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Fake Rewards

My brother's recent post regarding Metroid Prime 3 reminded me of a problem with that game: despite the amount of effort it takes to collect all of the missile expansions and ship missile expansions, there is little real benefit from doing so. These items are presented as being rewards for the player overcoming difficult obstacles and puzzles, but they serve very little benefit for the player beyond a certain point.

Ship Missiles Expansions are the most obvious Fake Reward in Metroid Prime 3. As far as I can tell, they are completely useless. You only rarely even have the chance to use a Ship Missile attack in that game, and it is easy to replenish your missile supply between those rare occasions by just walking into the next room and shooting a crate. There isn't a single place in the game where getting even one Ship Missile Expansion will make a battle or puzzle easier.

Missile Expansions are slightly more useful than their larger cousins, but you will never need 255 missiles in the game. Unless you waste a lot of missiles against enemies resistant to them, you might never use more than 20 missiles between rechargs in the whole game. Having such large numbers of missiles was important in older 2D Metroid games, because enemies like Ridley, Mother Brain, Zeta Metroids, and the Queen Metroid all required a large stock of missiles for the fight to even be possible. In the original Metroid Prime, this was also the case for some fights, and the Beam-Missile Combo weapons provided another way of using large numbers of missiles at once, thus justifying the large number of Missile Expansions. However, Metroid Prime 3 does not have any fights that require a large number of missile hits (with boss battles being too dependant on the Hypermode gimmick), so there is no reason for the player to ever need a lot of missiles.

Spending the time and energy to earn something that is not useful is a frustrating experience for the player, and does not make the game any more fun. It is a pitfall that should be avoided in game design.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn Part 2

Game Completion: In the middle of Part III, Chapter 2

Now that I know a lot more about the game, it seems it is time for me to talk a bit more about some system elements of Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn.

The Laguz: The Laguz characters of Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance and this game represent one of the hardest things to balance: a character or unit that is weaker than others half of the time, and stronger than others the other half of the time. In addition to that issue, they are different from other Fire Emblem units because they don't equip weapons, which is both a benefit (their weapons don't wear out) and a problem (they can't use different weapons for different situations). Finally, unlike other Fire Emblem characters, they don't class change when they increase in level.

The implementation of laguz characters in Path of radiance was fairly good, but was flawed. The way the transformation guage fills with every turn and attack while the laguz is in human form, and then drains for each turn and battle the laguz is in beast form, is quite elegant. However, all laguz were the equivalents of a class-changed character, which limited their availability in the early parts of the game as either allies or enemies. Also, they did not tend to gain enough power from levelling up that they stayed competitive given their limitations of use. In the final battle, only the exceptionaly powerful lagiz charqacters could keep up with the beorc characters who have been used across the entire game and are equiped with the most powerful weapons.

In Radiant Dawn changes many aspects of this system.

The most important changes are made to how the transformation guage works, and the power of the transformation. They changed the system so that every type of laguz gains and loses points on the guage at differing speeds, so some laguz can change on the fourth turn, but others will change on the eleventh. More importantly, the player can now let the guage remain at full without the laguz transforming, and can order a laguz to return to human form before the guage empties. These, along with an increase in the number of items that fill the guage, greatly increases the tactical options of the laguz, and are a much needed improvement. However, I am still confused by the way the guage seems to only fill irregularly when the laguz is attacked in human form.

Another important change in the game is the way stats are modified by a laguz's transformation. In Path of Radiance, transforming added set values to each stat. In Radiant Dawn, transforming doubles each stat. These means that laguz benefit more form each increase in level, but also that their human forms are extremely fragile, and become even more fragile as the game progresses. It seems to work out pretty well.

Finally, laguz use a different system of levelling than beorc. This is results in a lot of confusion about how the levels of laguz are supposed to compare to beorc levels when determining who to give kills and experience points to. This is made worse by the fact that an untransformed laguz gains experience at a different rate than a transformed laguz.

The Support System: The support system, the system whch lets you form ties between allies to give them combat bonuses and see optional conversations between them, is an important recurring elements of the Fire Emblem series. Path of Radiance used pretty much the same syustem as was used in the Fire Emblem games for the Game Boy Advance did, except made an improvement by basing the availability of support links on battles fought as a team, rather than the older system of basing it on turns spent adjacent. Also (like shops), it moved support conversations from the battlefield to the Base screen, making them more plausible and easier to manage. The only problem was that many support links between early characters took far too long to be built up properly, which punished experimenting with different characters and teams.

Radiant Dawn makes many major changes to the system. First, it limits a character to a single support partner, though now that partner can be changed, Second, it seems that it has returned to a loosened up version of spending turns adjacent to characters, rather than battles fought (I'm not sure, since like in other Fire Emblem games, it isn't explained well). Third, any character can now form support with any other character, rather than a limited set. Finally, the optional conversations which occur between support characters have been moved back to the battlefield, and have been trimmed down to just short greetings. The first two changes are tolerable, but the fourth, an obvious result of the third, is a grave mistake on the designers' part.

The greatest benefit of the support system in recent Fire Emblem games have been the way they provide character development for the cast of characters. Because Fire Emblem characters can die permanently, most members of the cast tend to fade away once they join the team. They cease to appear in the main plot, so they can only be developed and made interesting through optional dialogue. Path of Radiance and Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones both did a lot good character development and examination of the plot with these conversations, so their absence is quite noticable. In fact, a lot of the main plot elements of Radiant Dawn and character backstory elements of recurring characters were only hinted at in the optional conversations of Path of Radiance.

I guess I should save more for another post.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Weapons in Metroid Prime 3: Ice Missle vs. Seeker Missle

I have been a fan of the Metroid series ever since I played Super Metroid on the SNES. So, purchasing Metroid Prime 3: Corruption was an obvious decision.  I think that the game was pretty good. The elevation of the Grapple Beam to the position of being a major game play element was well executed for the most part. However, not all of the weapons and tools in the game were created equally. During my play-through of the game, I made one major discovery:

The Seeker Missile does a very poor job as a weapon.

During the entire course of Metroid Prime 3, I only used the Seeker Missile two or three times in an actual combat situation. The biggest problem facing the Seeker Missile is that it is a weapon designed to target up to five enemies at once in a game where Samus Aran is usually fighting enemies in groups of 3 or less at a time. There are only a handful of enemy groups in the game that are larger than three:

1) The large swarms of small, swarming enemies, such as the Pirate's walking mines. Most of these enemies are non-hostile, and the ones who are tend to advance too quickly to lock on to with all five missiles. In any case, spamming beam fire works well against these, and consumes less ammo.

2) The Tinbots and Steambots in Elysium. However, all of the Steambots are dead by the time Samus gets the Seeker Missle, and the Tinbots are easy to fight with other weapons.

3) The large swarm of six warping Metroids on the Valhalla. However, these enemies all but immune to missiles except for the brief moment where they pull back and charge at Samus. It is more reliable to take them down with a barrage of Beam fire.

While there are places where it is possible to get good use out of the Seeker missile, there are usually other strategies that work just as well if not better. This problem is exaggerated by some problems with the weapon itself that tend to discourage the player from using it:

1) Missiles have finite ammo. If faced with the choice of using up a limited resource or using an alternative strategy, most people would go for the alternative strategy, unless the one that uses up limited resources are significantly better.

2) The Seeker missile wasted 1 missile whenever I first pressed the missile button down to charge it up. In order to not waste a missile, I was forced to charge the beam temporarily, and then quickly hold down the missile button as the beam fired.

3) I never got the "lock onto one enemy more than once" ability of the Seeker Missile to work.

Because the Seeker missile never stood out as superior to other weapons in any specific situation, it simply was not a good weapon. In order for a weapon to really be seen as valuable by a player, it needs to give the player a significant advantage compared to other weapons in the same game under some circumstances.

The Ice Missile from the same game is a good example of this concept. On the second planet of the game, Samus Aran fights enemies such as the Reptilicus and Warp Hound, which are very resistant to normal missiles and beam shots, and can be aggressive attackers. However, the Ice Missile that is obtained on that planet makes them much easier opponents. It takes only two or three Ice missiles to kill one of these enemies, and the Ice missile slows them down, making them easier to hit and weakening their offense.

Because the Ice Missile has that effect, it makes the player start to think: "How did I ever live without this?" That kind of thought is what makes a weapon a good weapon.

There are a couple of things the developers of Metroid Prime 3 could have done to make the Seeker Missile more worthwhile. Most of these suggestions involve adding enemies that make the Seeker Missile a better choice for fighting against them. Unfortunately, most of the enemies and puzzles that require the Seeker Missile in Metroid Prime 3 are obvious and feel forced.

1) There are flying bug enemies on the second planet that are best fought using missiles simply because they are too fast and evasive to hit with beam shots. However, they only appear in packs of two or three at most. If they came in larger swarms of six or more, then the Seeker Missile would be an attractive option for fighting them.

2) Enemies that are more dangerous if attacked one by one. For example, a bunch of robots that become aggressive as soon as one of them is attacked. Alternatively, a group of enemies that gain more powerful attacks each time one is destroyed. In that case, the best option for fighting them would be to destroy all of the enemies at once.

With some additions like these, the Seeker Missile could have been a much more significant part of Metroid Prime 3.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Fire Emblem:Radiant Dawn, Part 1

Game Completion: Through Chapter 1:1

I am a long-time fan of the Fire Emblem series, so I have been anticipating this game for a while. Obviously enough, I got it as quickly as I could (it was released yesterday after all). For those who don't know much about the series, Radiant Dawn is a direct sequel to Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, and is the tenth game in the Fire Emblem series, though only the fourth to have been released in the United States.

The game has just been released, so I will avoid spoilers.

So far, early impressions are mixed.

First off, I had a severe problem when I tried starting a new game using data from Path of Radiance. The game froze, and a load buzz sound persisted until I shut off the console completley. This was repeated every time I tried. As such. I ended up giving up on that, and just started a new game without old data. Since I was looking forward to using my old data, I'm not very pleased.

However, the game itself so far is playing very well. It very quickly recaps the important elements of the last game's plot, and establishes the basic elements of the new plot. The heroine Micaiah's kindness and special abilities are laid out quickly, the dark, somber mood of an occupied country is felt, and the heartless cruelty of the occupying army is made crystal clear in short order. I already have a character on my "must see die" list, which is pretty impressive, actually. The music, while subdued, is beautiful, and sets the mood nicely. I also like how the first two missions transition in such a clear and logical manner, with the second mission being a direct logical result from the first, and how these missions solidify the character portrayal of the heroes so nicely.

In terms of gameplay, it is classic Fire Emblem. I am playing on Normal difficulty, and it is already surprisingly tricky. I had a few close calls with a few characters, and a lucky dodge of an attack is all that saved me from having to restart the second stage. I like games with this kind of challenge, so I am quite happy. Also, the use of more complicated objectives then "defeat all opponents" so early in the game is quite a nice change of pace from the rest of the series. I hope it persists.

One problem so far is in stage design. Traditionally in Fire Emblem games, houses that you can visit during a mission have a red roof, and a clearly seen. Path of radiance added a clearly open front door. In the second mission of Radiant Dawn, this was not the case, so I nearly missed some places to visit, becaise I did not recognize them. I understand that red roofs do not match the grim visuals the devoloper was aiming for, but some visual elements should have been added to make visitable locations clearer.

Anyways, my wishes and fears concerning the game are as follows:

1) The good speed and mood of the plot gets maintained over the course of the game.
2) The new systems and modifications to the Fire Emblem formula work out.
3) All the mysteries and plot threads that persist from Path of Radiance get a satisfying resolution.

1) That, like the last game, the Laguz characters will lack a clear role, and have more drawbacks then strengths.
2) That the many interesting characters returning from Path of Radiance will outshine the new cast, and prevent them from being interesting. Also, the opposite, in which the good characters from the last game will be completely overshadowed.
3) The classic elements of a Fire Emblem game get implemented poorly.

Finally, I have a few closing comments about the manual. As a whole, it is good, but like most other Fire Emblem game manuals, it doesn't explain many important elements in enough depth. Among other things, I don't know how the Support system works in this game (whether it works like it did in Path of Radiance, or the older system, or something else), and I don't know how it relates to or is different from the new "Bond" system.

I will post about more things in depth when I get to play the game some more.