Friday, February 29, 2008

The Utility of Head Mounted Displays

In my last post, I talked about various qualities of head mounted displays. However, today I want to talk about how head mounted displays could affect the future of gaming. In some ways, HMDs will probably change nothing about the user's game experience. Yet, they could be a useful tool for solving a few long-standing problems of game design.

The addition of a head mounted display would probably have a similar effect to increasing the graphical capabilities of a game console: increasing the visual appeal of a game. This would be particularly true if the headset was more immersive than a standard television or possessed solid 3-D capabilities, as I discussed in my last post. However, it is important to remember that this increase in visual appeal is limited in what it can do. For example, merely improving the graphics of a game can improve the reception it gets, but it won't solve any problems inherent in the game design. Fancy graphics or 3-D capabilities in a sense are novelties. They might draw in people, but they won't be enough on their own to sell a game, console, or peripheral device. In particular, decades of bad 3-D movies, the limited commercial success of IMAX, and the currently slow adoption of HD television demonstrate that technology that relies solely on an improved visual appeal is not necessarily capable of being marketable.

In summation, a high-quality, possibly 3-D, head mounted display will draw interest and attention, but will quickly be discarded as a useless gimmick if its creators and game designers rely on selling it entirely based on the improved visual appeal of compatible games. Thankfully for the head-mounted display, it does possess an unique advantage that can change game design in a somewhat significant way: what is displayed by the headset can only be seen by the person wearing it.

Having information that is limited to only one player can be a very useful game design tool when dealing with multiplayer situations. Back in late November, I discussed the problems that existed with local multiplayer (both co-op and vs.) on current console systems. Right now, on-line multiplayer is generally a superior experience to local multiplayer, because players don't have to deal with a split-screen when playing people over the internet. They get to have the entire screen to themselves. However, if multiple players each had head-mounted displays, that problem would go away. Everyone would be able to experience the full game experience. Furthermore, it would open up some interesting multiplayer design space, where one player could be using a headset, and another payer could be controlling the game in a different way on a TV screen.

I admit that this advantage is a relatively small one. Of course, head mounted displays can have a lot more interesting uses for video-games if they go beyond just a graphical display device and allow for unconventional control schemes. However, I will abstain from speculating about that impact of such a device until I get a chance to try one out. For now though, the utility of a HMD is mostly limited to an increase in visual appeal and an improvement in local multiplayer game design.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Old Favorites: Drakengard 2

In many ways, I consider Drakengard 2 to be a much better game than the original Drakengard. It has a few severe flaws, but for the most part its story and gameplay are a significant improvement over the original game.

Gameplay in Drakengard 2 is organized in an identical manner to the previous game. There are ground missions in which you fight large numbers of soldiers with weapons, magic, and dragonfire, and aerial missions that feature dogfighting between your dragon and aerial foes. The terrain is more varied (and far less flat) in the ground missions this time around, aerial missions are a bit more complex, and there are a few minor nods to blurring the lines between the stage types, but the basics of gameplay are the same. However, there are a number of significant changes that make the whole game feel very different.

One major change in the game is that there are no more red-armored soldiers who are immune to dragonfire. Every enemy can be at least harmed using attacks from your dragon. However, the same role is filled by the large monsters such as ogres, minotaurs, and behemoths, who will counter-attack and knock you off your dragon if you try to defeat them with dragonfire. Unlike the red-armored soldiers, though, these enemies can be defeated quickly and tend to be an interesting fight, so it is never tedious (I recall always using physical attacks to defeat them, so I can't remember whether they are immune to magic or not). Also, the role of "enemies who can not be hurt by magic" that was filled by red-armored soldiers has been given to undead soldiers this time around, who mostly only appear in indoors missions where you can't use your dragon. Also, archers and the effect of being knocked off of your dragon when consecutively attacked remain from the last game, though archers tend to appear in smaller, widely distributed groups in this game.

As a whole, the game does more to restrict your use of the dragon through design of the stage map and artificial restrictions on the dragon's availability than through certain enemy types. It has more dynamic stage locations like small tunnels the dragon can't access and narrow passes filled with archers and mages, which actually serves to keep things very interesting when completing stages because the situation can change so much more in the middle of a mission than in the previous game, and the decision about whether to use your dragon or not is more complex. Even the experience system has been changed to make you think more carefully about using your dragon or not, because unlike in the previous game, killing enemies with the dragon will not build up the hitpoints or other stats of the other characters.

While using stage design to get rid of the need of red-armored soldiers is a good thing, it seems to come at a pretty severe cost. Namely, Drakengard 2 has very few stages like the dominant stage type of the previous game: large-scale battles against hundreds of soldiers where you can rain down dragonfire to level an army. Most stages of a similar type tend to have much fewer enemies than similar stages would have had in the previous game, and in the one stage that actually has a large number of foes you can fight on dragon-back, you are fighting in a closed area and the objective is merely to kill a minor fraction of the enemies present, rather than use the old Drakengard system of having both targets you must kill to complete objectives and large numbers of enemies you can kill for fun. Finally, no mission in Drakengard 2 compares to the early missions of the first game, where there are countless enemies far off the normal mission path. Instead, the game tends to leave areas you don't need to visit fairly empty. The end result is that the missions are a bit too focused, and you ever really have a good opportunity to just fight a lot of enemies, which is part of the point of this genre of game.

That being said, the general improvements to the game, such as better controls, the adjustment to the ally characters to be equal in importance to the hero (they are no longer cheap super-weapons at all), creating different enemy types who are strong or vulnerable to particular characters, the addition of flashy Dragon Overdrive attacks, and various other changes, make ground missions a lot of fun.

Aerial missions in Drakengard 2 are very similar to the previous game, except now they feel even less important to the main game. In Drakengard 2, most boss battles are now ground missions, so one of the ways aerial missions were given importance in the last game has been limited. In fact, one of the boss battles in which you use your dragon to fight an opponent is technically a ground mission (which just highlights the fact that the game would have been better if there was more room to transition between proper ground and aerial missions). Also, I don't like the change to the dragon's magic in this game. The "breath spheres" are an awkward mechanic, and their importance and dependance on using direct attacks makes homing shots too much of a poor choice. I think it would have been better if they simply created an aerial version of the Dragon Overdrive system.

I still have a lot more to say about the two Drakengard games, but the kind of detailed analysis I want to do would take up too much space in this post, so I will save it for another day. Both games have very convoluted characters and plot/gameplay structures, after all.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

GDC Tech: 3-D Gaming Headsets

While I was at the Game Developer's Conference, I had the chance to try out two different Head Mounted Displays designed to create a 3-D gaming experience for the player. An immersive, 3-D headset has been part of the imagined future of entertainment for decades, and has appeared in near-future fiction such as the .Hack series for about as long. However, I don't think either of the devices I tried have actually been able to reach that level yet.

The biggest problem I found that was that neither headset was truly immersive. When wearing either one of the headsets, it felt like I was just looking at a really small television screen. The composite display still looked like a rectangular screen that easily fit inside my field of view. As a result, I still felt the same separation from the action of the game that I feel when playing on a regular television screen.

There is only one experience that I have found to generate a satisfactory feeling of being close to the action: an IMAX-Dome theater. A large-screen IMAX theater is so immersive that the visuals of a movie trick the viewer into thinking that the entire theater is moving. The reason for this is that the movie screen covers the spectator's entire field of view, including the viewer's peripheral vision, with a single unbroken image. A head mounted display should also be able to generate this kind of effect.

A problem with one of the displays I looked at was its lack of clarity. That system attempted to create a 3-D image by transforming the input feed from a game designed for normal 2-D screens into a pair of quickly alternating images that could be used by the glasses to create a 3-D image. They had a display of the modified input on display on a regular TV screen to demonstrate how it worked. However, this approach did not create a very clear image. Part of it had to be a goof on their part, since the text and UI of the game was not split into the two images. While it was readable on the TV display, it was constantly out-of-focus on the 3-D headset. However, the strobe-like alternation of images was discernible while wearing the headset. So, trying to make out any detail at all was difficult.

However, the 3-D display at the Intel booth did not do a particularly good job of creating a 3-D image at all. Perhaps it was just a poor choice of game, but I did not perceive much of a 30D effect while playing with their headset on. While I could read the UI and game text just fine, and there were no problems with clarity, the game just didn't feel like any different of an experience from watching it on a TV screen.

3-D can be a very difficult effect to achieve. However, I actually think immersion is not only easier to achieve than 3-D, but possible more rewarding. The feeling that the entire room around you is moving is a very strong effect that can really draw a player into a game. And it can simply be a matter of having a sufficiently high resolution headset that can cover the player's entire field of view. Trying to create a 3-D effect requires significantly greater engineering.

However, whether they are 3-D, immersive, or not, headsets could be a very interesting way of redefining the world of video-gaming. However, I will save that discussion for next time.

Old Favorites: Drakengard

Square-Enix's PS2 action game Drakengard is one of those odd games that make blogging interesting for me. It is far from being perfect, but it has enough raw entertainment value that I kept with it until the end (no matter how insane things became by that point).

There are two main game modes in Drakengard: ground missions and aerial missions. Gameplay in the ground missions consists of either chopping your way through hundreds of enemies with weapons and magic, or flying over the battlefield on the back of a dragon, burning the enemies from above. Aerial missions are battles on dragon-back against all kinds of flying monsters, built like classic aerial dogfight games (they are supposedly inspired by the Ace Combat series, from what I have read). Neither game mode implements any individual element in a particularly novel manner, but the combination is unique and implemented fairly well.

One thing the designers of this game understood very well when designing the ground missions was that defeating whole armies with blasts of dragonfire is a lot of fun. Starting with some of the earliest missions, they present chapters which have many hundreds more enemies than is really necessary. In fact, even the very first mission has incredibly huge areas filled with enemies far too powerful to be defeated by the hero himself at the beginning of the game, even though these areas are not even touched upon by the actual mission objectives At the same time, the game is very clear about mission objectives, and makes it so that you can clear a mission by simply defeating a fairly small fraction of the total number of enemies. The level design supports both the player who wants to take his time having fun by defeating many opponents and building up weapons, and the player who just wants to clear through a mission quickly.

The only problematic part of the ground mission design is the fact that there is a time limit on missions. The time limit is usually absurdly generous, so that it is almost never an issue, so it really doesn't seem to exist to encourage clearing maps quickly or be a challenge. If you use your dragon to defeat enemies, you will pretty much never run into a problem with the timer. It is only if the player wants to defeat every last soldier on foot in a large map that the timer will ever be an issue, but in that case it is purely a choice on the part of the player, so I wonder why the game designers would want to punish such behavior.

An important problem regarding the game concept that the designers tried to overcome was the question "how can the game be challenging if you can always just climb on the dragon and burn everything from the sky?" If you never need to land, then the entire system of fighting on foot becomes meaningless. This is partially solved through the existence of indoor missions where you can't use the dragon, but even in outdoor missions it is mitigated through two effects: enemies who can't be hurt by dragonfire (the red armored soldiers) and the way the hero is dismounted from the dragon if the dragon is hit multiple times in succession (mostly by archers). Both solutions are fairly good, but they both also have some problems.

I think most of the aspects of fighting archers in this game are handled well. The effect of archers knocking the hero off of the dragon after consecutive hits works well. It means that you can't just defeat every archer by soaking up damage and burning them all, but at the same time you are not guaranteed to be knocked off of the dragon. It means fighting archers from dragon-back is difficult, but not impossible. The problem, though, is that fighting archers on foot is too tricky and annoying. I think trying to fight archers on foot lead to more deaths early in the game then fighting the strongest enemies of the late game, which is not an ideal situation.

I really like fighting the red-armored soldiers in the game. I like having an excuse to get off of the dragon and fight. I still wonder how the designers justify the strange red armor which negates dragonfire and shoot back green energy bolts when hit by fire, but that is a minor issue. The major issue is that a type of enemy which is designed to encourage the hero to fight on foot is also totally immune to all of the magical attacks the hero can use only on foot. These spells are both a good way to avoid tediously long fights and are a lot of fun, so being unable to use them means the red armored soldiers can only be defeated through repeated weapon attacks, which can get tiresome. Also, the logic of the red armor breaks down with this, because while the hero's magic is useless against these guys, the magical attacks of his summoned allies can devastate red armored soldiers very easily. Thus, fighting red armored soldiers is mostly a case of either tedious sword-fighting or summoning an ally to destroy them effortlessly.

I guess I should mention more clearly that I don't like the implementation of the ally characters in this game. Their magical abilities are incredibly powerful, can be used against any enemy, and can be used without any cost. You can only use an ally two or three times in a map, and only or a limited time each use, but within that time they can simply wipe out every enemy in their path. Their fully charged magical abilities are so powerful and easy to use their weak physical attacks and uncharged spells are a complete waste of time. These characters are something of a "Get Out of Jail Free" card you are almost guaranteed to have, which I think cheapens some of the difficulty and mood of the game too much.

Anyways, enough about the ground mission, it is time to talk about the aerial missions. Of course, I am not sure what to say about Drakengard's aerial mission, since they are fairly simple. You breathe either direct fire attacks or homing shots, evade with side-dashing, and use powerful magic attacks when the magic gauge fills. Almost every aerial mission takes place in an empty sky while en route to a new area, and few aerial missions are at all memorable. The missions are fun, but they can feel more like a minigame added onto a robust ground combat game than an important element in of themselves. The most important thing about these missions is that, with one exception, every boss battle is an aerial mission, which is something of an odd choice. These aerial boss battles tend to be a lot of fun, particularly the battles against the hero's rival and his black dragon, but I think it is still unusual to have so few ground boss battles. I suppose it was a bid to make the aerial combat system more important to the game.

If I have any overall criticism of the game mechanics, I think it would be the integration between ground missions and aerial missions. I think the game would have been a lot better if objects on the ground were important to aerial missions and things in the air were important to ground mission, and you could smoothly switch between air-to-air, air-to-ground, and ground-to-ground combat. I understand that the division is probably rooted in technical limitations of the hardware, and what I want would have been difficult or impossible to achieve with Playstation 2 hardware, but it still seems that it is an important thing to achieve for a game like Drakengard in which freely switching between fighting on foot and riding a dragon is central to the game concept.

Before I forget, I think I will mention how much I like the weapon collection and improvement system in this game. Searching for hidden weapons is fun, and it is just as fun to try new weapons out and level them up. Having each weapon have a unique spell, unique fighting style, a distinct appearance for each of its four levels, and its own backstory that is revealed as you level it up is a great concept.

Monday, February 25, 2008

RPG drop-off points

One game that I have been wanting to get back to playing for some time now is Nippon Ichi's Disgaea 2. I managed to make it pretty far into the game sometime last year, but except for a brief re-visit a few months ago, I have not played it since. Even though I want to see the end of the plot of the game, it has been hard getting back into the gameplay. And a large part of the reason for that is that the game has begun to drag along.

The main problem is that the amount of reward per unit of time investment put into the game has dropped off dramatically since the early parts of the game. When I stopped playing, I had reached  a dungeon called Shinra Tower, where a number of problems in the game design came together to make the game a lot less fun than the preceding parts of the game:

1) The amount of story has dropped off. For most of the game, there was a story scene before and after every battle map. However, the only plot so far in Shinra Tower came at the beginning of the first battle of the area. There have been several battles in a row with little plot.

2) It is hard to tell how much further I have to go to reach the end. Since Shinra Tower does not follow the typical pattern of four stages per game chapter, I don't know how many more stages I have to clear to get to the end.

3) The levels of the enemies began to increase at an accelerated rate. This means each stage requires more leveling up to be on an even level with the enemies than earlier parts of the game.

4) There is no area where it is easy to level up to the necessary level range. There are maps that are designed to help level up your characters in Disgaea 2, but the only available ones have much lower level enemies than the enemies in the higher stages of the Shinra Tower.

5) By the time I had reached this part of the game, a new wave of brand new games had already been released. So, there were other games I was interested in drawing my attention away by the time I was late in this game.

All told, this point of the game has become a larger level grind than earlier parts of the game, paired with a dramatic decrease in story reward, and no clear end in sight. These are all results of the game's design, and they all conspired to make me lose interest in playing more of Disgaea 2. The only reason I want to finish the game is thanks to an emotional investment in the characters.

Unfortunately, this situation comes up a lot in console RPGs for some reason. For example, Final Fantasy 12 lost my interest when I reached the Phon Coast, where I had just passed through three whole game areas with little to no plot, the enemies had become so much higher level than me that I had no choice but to stop progressing and level grind, and I had no clue how much further I had to go to reach my destination.

Any place where an RPG forces the player to level grind, rather than progress at a reasonable rate through the story, is simply faulty game design. Some of my favorite RPGs are my favorites because this is not a problem in the system. For example, it is possible to beat most of Xenogears without ever getting off of the rails of the plot in order to level up (excepting the second disc, but the problems with that part of the game are both famous and too numerous to discuss here). It is possible to design an RPG where the player does not have to invest any game time level grinding. So there really is no excuse for RPGs that do force the player to do so.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

NeuroSky's New Gadget

Preparing for and attending the 2008 Game Developer Conference appears to have distracted my brother and me from posting here for a week. I guess it is time to get back on the regular posting schedule.

At the GDC, I had the opportunity to try out a gadget created by the NeuroSky company, a head-mounted device designed to read the brainwaves of a person who is playing a videogame, analyze those brainwaves to determine the player's mental state, and relay that information to the game being played. The gadget just needs to be placed on a persons head in order to read brainwaves (nothing difficult or obnoxious for the player) and seems to work quite well. It can't seem to interpret thoughts into direct game commands or anything like that, but it can evaluate the player's mental state and translate that into an effect on the game. The demo at the GDC demonstrated the device's ability to observe the player's attention and meditation levels, and the company representative I spoke to claimed that the system can also observe other things like drowsiness and anxiety levels. This technology is a far cry from the holy grail of being able to play a videogame using nothing but thoughts, but it is still an impressive technology that can be used to make interesting videogames.

However, despite the potential of the system, the demo at the GDC didn't do a very good job of showing how this technology could be used in a game effectively. The demo relied on the gimmick of "moving objects with your mind", even though the technology could not actually translate the desire to move something into actually moving something. Instead, they just had the overall attention levels and meditation levels serve as a "power source" for commands executed through mouse clicks. For me, "using my mind to move and burn objects" was just a process of clicking on an object, and then having my apparently natural high attention level (possible augmented by caffeine from my lunch) trigger the effect with no conscious effort on my part. That was not terribly entertaining. The other activity, lifting things with meditation, was just an exercise in demonstrating that it is not easy to control your mental state on command, and would not make any better a game experience than the other activities. Controlling action with mental state is not a viable way of implementing game controls, because it is far too imprecise and dependent on individual personality, That said, I do still think that this system can be used for games.

Rather than use the implementation seen in the demo, I think it would be much better to use a player's mental state to control the mental state of game characters. This technology can be used to synchronize the way the player reacts to situations in a game and the way the character controlled by the player reacts to those events. If the player pays attention, the character will pay attention. If the player becomes anxious and frightened, the character will become anxious and frightened. There are a number of interesting specific implementations I can imagine for this:

1) Personalizing animations in an MMO. A player can set specific animations to play when his mental state changes. For example, the player might have it so that his character yawns or stretches when the player is drowsy, or jumps up and down when the player is excited. In fact, this cna be extended so that characters can have very different animations based on the mindset of the player, making each character act like the character itself is feeling the emotion and expressing it through natural body language.

2) Implementing some kind of action game mechanic in which the mental state of the player enables different kinds of styles and techniques for the character. If the player is highly focused and paying attention to a single target, then the character can use powerful moves to fight single foes. If the player has achieved some kind of zen-like calm while fighting countless enemies, or perhaps is bored and wants to just get past a part of the game, then the character might reflect that by being able to use moves that defeat large numbers of weak enemies quickly.

3) Altering the atmosphere and mood of a landscape. Make it so the world can reflect the mental state of the person playing the game, If the player is happy, the game world will be bright and colorful. If the player is afraid, the game world will be dark and terrifying. Or perhaps the environment can be made to oppose the mental state of the player, and try to cheer up a depressed player or make a happy player anxious.

There are many possibilities, and I am very curious how this kind of technology will be used by the industry in the future. It might be a while before brainwave-reading technology is packaged in with every game console, but I am sure that some form of this technology will add a lot to videogames in the future.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Leveling Stats Through Use

One leveling system that appears every once in a while in RPGs is a system where a character builds up a skill or statistic by using said skill over and over again. This is the case in Front Mission, where a character's four main combat skills (Melee, Short, Long, and Evade) are all built up by use. It was also the system at work in SaGa Frontier, where magic stats will randomly go up if you use magic a lot, and so on. Another example is Final Fantasy 2.

I think that systems like these tend to be problematic. The first problem that can occur is over-specialization. For example, while a character in Front Mission can go into battle equiped with a missile launcher, a melee weapon, and a machine gun, it is very, very hard to be good at all three. In this case, the biggest problem is that the weapon skills that boost these weapons build up in a linear fashion. For example, a typical pilot specializing in guns on my team right now has 8000 experience points in his Short range combat skill, and is thus about rank 80 in the skill. My only character who has split his focus on all three main combat skills only is at rank 40 in the Short range skill, and only around rank 20 in the other two. Even my character who specializes mostly in Short but sometimes uses Long range missiles has his skill ranks at 59 and 27 respectively.

And the effects of these skill ranks add up. For example, one of my Long range experts, with a skill rank of 80 or so, can destroy an enemy mech's arm by hitting with just one of a volley of three missiles. My main character, who has a skill rank of about 20 with Long range missiles, has to hit with all three missiles in the salvo to destroy the same part. Because the progression is linear, a character who splits his attention between two skills will only be half as good at either one compared to a specialist. And in the long run, the net effect of this difference will continue to add up to be bigger and bigger. So, this system forces extreme specialization, at the risk of gimping your character is you do not.

The risk of a character being gimped is the biggest flaw in a system where statistics build up through use. In a traditional leveling system, it is easy for the game designer to predict what the stats for a given character will be at a given level. Thus, the designers creating the monsters for a given dungeon or battle can figure out what stats to give the monsters, using the expected level of the player's characters. However, in a system where stats level up based on use, it is much harder to predict what the characters' stats will be. Thus, the balance of the game can be seriously thrown out of whack.

Another problem can occur when character's stats level up based on parameters the player does not have direct control over. For example, one of the four stats in Front Mission is Evade, which only goes up when the player defends against enemy attacks. However, there is no effective means of controlling who the enemies attack, so how fast this skill builds up is completely up to chance. This is an even bigger problem in the much older Final Fantasy 2, where characters only gain more hit points and defensive stats by being dropped to less than half health in a battle. As a result, the only way to have high enough stats to beat the game involves having your own party members beat on each other. Thus, getting good stats requires a lot of needless work.

In order to limit these problems, it is necessary to step away from a pure "stats build up as you use them" approach. All of a character's necessary stats should be able to grow to some degree, regardless of whether they are used or not. For example, a character who only uses offensive skills should still build up defensive stats, even if they do not build up as much as offensive stats. Furthermore, tweaking the system so that a character who uses multiple kinds of ability can stay within 70-80% effectiveness compared to a specialist will prevent characters from becoming gimped by early mistakes.

Harvest Moon

Thanks to the glorious Virtual Console on my Wii, I am finally getting a chance to play the original Harvest Moon. I own Harvest Moon 64 and Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life, so I was already familiar with the series, but considering that the original game is so simplistic in comparison to later games in the series, I am amazed at how fun and addicting it can be.

In a way, I think the simplicity of the first Harvest Moon is a great strength of the game. At its core, this is a game about time management. There are a lot of things to do, but you have very little time in each day to do anything. Within this overarching restriction, it is nice to not have to worry about little details very much. For example, each growing season has only two crops: the crop that grows faster and the crop that is more profitable in the long run. If you need a quick buck you grow turnips or tomatoes, but if you want a lot of money you grow potatoes or corn. There are no crops that fill an unneeded middle ground and there is nothing to distract or confuse you. There are many choices you need to make at a time like that one, but each one is simple enough to process quickly. As a result, days move by very quickly, and a game about growing crops can move at a very fast pace.

Because you spend most of your time doing the same things over and over again in Harvest Moon, someone might think that it might get predictable and dull. However, Harvest Moon actually avoids this by putting all of the repetitive actions in the game on different cycles. Turnips grow on a four-day cycle, but the flower shop where you buy turnip seeds is open and closed based on a seven-day week, and the whole season lasts 30 days. You can't count on buying turnip seeds on the day you will need to plant them because the flower shop may be open on planting day one time but it may be closed on the next. At the same time, you need to juggle the harvesting and planting of various crops, and balance this all with running down to buy livestock when you get money, mending fences after random wild dog events, trying to date a girl, finding time to clear land, and going up to the mountains to chop wood so that you can eventually build a house and get married. While you do have to do some things every day, the time you spend each day outside of just feeding animals and watering crops can vary widely based on your shifting needs, priorities, and goals, simply because different things happen at different times, and there is not enough time in the day to do everything.

Finally, one thing that is a great strength of Harvest Moon is how it sticks to the basic premise that you only have to do what you want to do in the game. The only artificial restrictions are that if you want to make money quickly you need to farm, and if you want to get married you need a big house. The first is a logical and fair restriction that keeps the focus of the game on the main farming mechanic, and the second is just a way of encouraging you to go to the effort of improving your house (and perhaps adding extra obstacles to help make getting married remain at its position as the game's most difficult and unique accomplishment). While marrying a girl is an option, it is not required. While making a lot of money is an option, it is not required. While attending various festivals is an option, it is not required. You can pretty much have the main character sleep through the entire game without any particular consequence, or you can work like a dog to get as much as possible, simply of your own choice. Any stress or difficulty in the game is something created by the player himself, which makes it all the more real for the player.

Harvest Moon 64 inherits all of the strong qualities of the original game, and adds just enough complexity (such as making friends, winter mining, the horse and dog racing festivals, and the inventory screen) to make things more interesting without impacting the speed and simplicity of the game. It is a really good game. Unfortunately, many of the later Harvest Moon games do not emphasize the traditional strengths of the series, and end up losing the "one more day" addictive quality of the early games. For example, even glossing over Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life's crime of being a farming sim game in which raising crops is far and away your least efficient way of making money, that game completely ruins the principles of simplicity and time management of the early Harvest Moon games. For example, in A Wonderful Life you can buy just about everything you need from a catalog in your farm. This mechanic removes the valuable effect of forcing the player to go to different shops, which is an important thing you need to budget time for in older Harvest Moon games and a source of variability in the game. Also, A Wonderful Life lengthens the day so much that time budgeting is not incredibly important. You can do most of the things you want to do in a single day, rather than having to pick the two things other than caring for livestock and watering crops like you do in the original game. Also, added unnecessary complexity (such a fertilizing crops, having to impregnate a cow for her to give milk, etc) slows the game down even further, and makes the various chores of a farmer into a chore for the player.

The one advantage that some later Harvest Moon games have over the original and Harvest Moon 64 is the story. While I think that some of the attempts made in these games go against the basic principles of the game being a story about a farmer who does what he (or she) wants (namely the plots involving "save the town from being bought out!" or "save the Harvest Goddess!"), the movement towards having some more sophisticated story is a good one. Despite all the fun gameplay, Harvest Moon is a narrative desert with lifeless characters, and Harvest Moon 64 is fairly empty as well. A Harvest Moon game that combined the mechanics and pacing of the early games with more character development and story would be a great game indeed.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Old Favorites: SaGa Frontier

Years ago, my brother and I were in the habit of going down to the local video rental store to rent a video-game every weekend. We rented way more games than we purchased in those days. There are a few games we would have saved money on if we had purchased them. One of these is an under-appreciated gem called Saga Frontier. SaGa Frontier is part of Square's SaGa series, and was released as part of the landmark first wave of Square games for the Playstation, which also included Final Fantasy 7, Final Fantasy Tactics, Xenogears, and Bushido Blade.

It is hard to explain why I liked SaGa Frontier so much, because the game was rife with serious flaws. Yet, there was a lot that was very unique and fun about it. One of SaGa Frontiers more unique qualities was that it allowed the player to chose to play as one of 7 main characters, each of whom had a unique plot (though some characters had more plot than others). There was also a very large cast of recruitable characters who appeared in some or all of the seven story-lines. The only other game like it is Seiken Densetsu 3 (the third Secret of Mana game), which was never released in the US.

A large part of the game's charm was those characters. All characters in the game were split into 4 mechanically distinct categories: Human, Mystic, Monster, and Robot. Humans could acquire special techniques and learn magic, Monsters could copy the special abilities of monsters killed in battle and transform into more powerful forms, Robots didn't level up but instead increased their stats by equipping weapons, armor, and special parts, and Mystics could both use magic and absorb monsters into their special Mystic weapons and copy the monsters' attack skills. Humans were the easiest to use, an most common of the four, while Mystics were downright rare, and somewhat weak compared to the others.

Which characters you could recruit varied based on who the main character was. For example, T260G, the only Robot main character, recruits a lot of unique Robots in his story. Red recruits a lot of members of IRPO (kinda like Interpol) officers who were fighting the same criminal syndicate that he was trying to get revenge against. However, there were many characters (including three main characters) who could be easily recruited in any story. Unfortunately, there was a hard cap of 15 characters you can recruit, so you have to be picky about which characters you want to get.

The biggest effect of having multiple storylines in the same game was that the developers were forced to keep each storyline fairly short and simple. In particular, Lute's story was so short that it is possible to fight his final boss within an hour of starting his game. Of course, killing his final boss is impossible without gaining a lot of levels. As a result of this, side-questing took up 50-95% of each of the seven stories. However, the game designers went to some effort to keep it interesting. SaGa Frontier was absolutely packed with side-quests and optional dungeons. Part of this was that it was possible to explore an optional dungeon in one plot-line that was a story dungeon in another plot-line. 

In order to make this more interesting, the game designers took the unusual approach of making monsters encounters scaling in every dungeon. All of the monsters in the game were divided into certain categories, such as Plant or Robot. For example, if you ran into a Plant monster on the field map, you would have to fight a group of monsters pulled from that category that were approximately the same strength as the party. This means that the player can explore the dungeons in almost any order, since the monsters are going to always be the right level. However, there are some monster types, such as Aquatic and Giant, that are particularly dangerous, and there are some dungeons where the monsters are always stronger than the party. So certain dungeons and sidequests are always tough, no matter how strong the party is.

Despite the fact that the side-quests are the same in all 7 stories, the game designers did try and keep things interesting. One thing they did was make it so that the player could only go through some of the dungeons on each play-through of the game. The most important side-quests in the game are ones that unlock the ability to learn certain kinds of magic. These are organized into four pairs of two. Each character can only learn one of the two kinds of magic in a pair, and many of the dungeons can only be attempted in the main hero is attempting to learn that magic type. This means that the player can have a slightly different experience in each play-through by varying which magic types they learn, in addition to experimenting with different characters. The side-quests also can be different thanks to the different ways each character experiences the game. For example, one dungeon where the monsters are always way more powerful than the party is the Bio-Lab in Shrike. It can be a brutal dungeon for a party to attempt late in the game. However, it can be fully explored by Red early in his game when he visits Shrike. Red has the ability to transform into the armored super-hero Alkaiser when he is alone, which easily doubles his power. So, he can easily fight off the strong monsters of the Bio-Lab early in his game, master some techniques, and recruit a rare character.

The biggest, most annoying flaw of SaGa Frontier was money. Monsters simply did not drop enough to buy anything. So, I always had to rely on equipment I found in dungeons and save up enough cash to buy gold. Why buy gold? Easy, once you have enough gold to make a decent starting investment, it is possible to exploit a bug in a gold-trading system of the game to produce infinite money. A bug which was intentionally left in there by the testers to do just that. Once you have all the money you need, it is simply a matter of buying up Powered Suits and fancy guns, swords, and bazookas. No player should ever have to rely on a money exploit as I did playing SaGa Frontier.

Still, I did have a ton of fun with the game. I guess a part of it was the very quirky setting and wierd characters. Since when has there been a game with a superhero, an ancient robot still fighting a long forgotten war, a magician hunting down his own twin brother, a half-Mystic raising a rebellion, an ex-supermodel looking for her boyfriend's murderer, a shape-changing monster looking for magic rings, and a wandering minstrel all as its main characters?

Advance Wars: Days of Ruin's Victory Conditions

Sometimes it feels like a battle in Advance Wars: Days of Ruin is decided by the first five turn of battle, and then goes on to take another twenty rounds for the inevitable conclusion to be confirmed. All of your moves early in a battle are incredibly important in order to avoid being crushed, but late in a battle you can be very sloppy and still win. Sometimes, the complete impossibility of an opponent's comeback makes the endgame tedious and boring.

One thing that I think is a major factor of this problem is the discrepancy between the winning objectives and the actual way the game is played. At its core, Advance Wars is a game about capturing cities and controlling territory. The most important moves in the game are the early choices of units to build and how to position them so that you can hold more cities than your opponent as quickly as possible. Once you have more cities than your opponent, all you need to do is hold on to those cities long enough for the difference in income to create a sizable advantage in military power. If an opponent does not break your control over the most important map positions (usually the center of a symmetrical map) in a a very early attempt, then that opponent has very little chance of winning. However, the victory conditions that govern when the battle is actually over require either total destruction of all enemy units, or the capture of the enemy HQ (and since Sami is not a CO in this game, the two requirements are pretty much one and the same). This requirement is completely independent of the major variables that control the flow of the game such as relative number of captured bases, relative number and value of active units, and the remaining funds for both sides.

I guess a better way of describing the discrepancy is that there is a huge difference in time between the point in which side has no hope of victory and when the battle is determined to be over by the rules. This discrepancy can lead to large amounts of wasted time for the player, especially when the enemy does everything in its power in order to be annoying and draw out the battle longer (such as do nothing but build anti-air units when you can only attack with air units). In battles between two human players this is not necessarily an issue because one player can resign when the game becomes hopeless, but this will be a concern in battles against the game's AI. Something needs to be changed in either the winning conditions themselves, or the game's AI.

Changing the winning conditions themselves can be problematic. Slight changes to winning conditions can have severe, and potentially bad, changes on game strategy. For example, using "defeat 100 enemy units" as a winning condition in Advance Wars would mean that it is always much better to use fewer expensive units like War Tanks rather than cheap units like Recon units whenever possible, which artificially distorts the balance of the game. I suppose there are a few alternative victory conditions that are more closely linked to gameplay than the current ones, like "destroy all enemy infantry and capture or place unit on every enemy factory" (a strategy I find myself using to subdue very stubborn enemies), but this example victory condition is a bit too complex and not very different from the existing ones (though it places more emphasis on the truly important factories than the artificially important headquarters, which is an improvement).

Another possible solution is to adjust the AI. In particular, it would not be a bad idea to implement a way for the AI to judge if it has a reasonable chance of winning or not and give the AI the choice of resigning and sparing the player the trouble of wiping it out completely, as if the AI were a human opponent. I think this is the best solution from a design standpoint, though given possible AI programming difficulties (which may be significant, but I am no programmer so I really can't say) it may not be a practical idea.

No matter what is done, it is important that the winning conditions of a game lean more towards a too-long game than a too-short game, in my opinion. It is best not to over-correct when trying to avoid a drawn-out end. After all, a large part of the fun in Advance Wars is fighting messy battles between two sides fighting desperately over cities, each side using a variety of units. If you make the victory conditions or enemy AI too forgiving, then the battle may be cut short while it is still fun and exciting. In a multiplayer game, making victory conditions too easy to achieve may result in one side being essentially cheated of a situation in which the losing player felt like a come-back was possible. I would much rather drag out a fight than be handed a victory when it was just getting good.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Game Continuity and The Legend of Zelda

Not too long ago, I got dragged into a debate on a message-board about timelines and continuity in The Legend of Zelda series. It has been a very contentious topic ever since popularized the subject by coming up with a theory in the final part of their Zelda retrospective. Now then, I am not interested in talking about how various Zelda games connect together, or whether or not these theories are correct or not. I want to talk about whether or not game designers, either those involved in making Zelda games or on other franchises, should worry about continuity within a franchise or not.

There are a few drawbacks to focusing on continuity in a series like the Zelda series, which can have an impact on a game designer's freedom. First of all, if the game designers wanted a Zelda game to fit into a continuity at some place, that choice would necessitate certain world-building choices. For example, if Nintendo made the decision to make a Zelda game take place immediately after A Link to the Past, they could not use Gorons or Kokiri, or make any non-human a sage, without having to make a lot of explanations inside the game. In order to uphold continuity, a game designer cannot make glaring contradictions to previous games in the series. Thus, the game designers are bound by the decisions made by previous directors and writers.

Furthermore, putting games in the same continuity mandates the presence of continuity nods, like what appear in Twilight Princess and Wind Waker around the stories of ancient heroes wearing green. However, relying too much on continuity nods to explain story details can cause problems if your audience hasn't played the previous games. For example, the fact that there are Triforce marks on the hands of Link, Zelda, and Ganondorf in Twilight Princess that represent the power of the Triforce pieces is something that only makes sense to someone who has played Ocarina of Time or Wind Waker, particularly since the word Triforce is not mentioned once in Twilight Princess. However, there are plenty of gamers who have played neither of those games. You can't count on your audience's knowledge of the series. Relying on continuity to fill in storytelling gaps can be problem. Ideally, every videogame should be self-contained enough to make sense by itself.

However, there are other story telling methods and ways of managing continuity that have very successful precedent in film and television. One example is the Mobile Suit Gundam series. Originally, all Gundam series were part of a single continuity. However, after the movie Char's Counterattack, the time jumps in the story were big enough that the entire setting had changed too much to even be recognizable. However, while the series had lost most of the advantages of continuity, it was stuck with trying to maintain some degree of consistency. This eventually resulted in Mobile Suit Victory Gundam, which was very poorly received. Afterwards, the creators of Gundam created what came to be known as Alternate Universe series. In these television series, the creators could still benefit from the name recognition built by the original continuity, but had much greater freedom to experiment. For example, the original universe had physics built around the existence of the Minovisky particle, which explained all of the fancy beam weapons and flight technology. However, later alternate universe series were free t completely ditch the Minovisky particle and its wonky effects if they wanted to. This resulted in series like Gundam Seed, which was partially an alternate retelling of the original series with the addition of genetically engineered super-humans. The creators simply had more design space.

A similar, yet somewhat different, example can be found in the Godzilla movies. There are actually at least three separate continuities of Japanese Godzilla movies. They all share one thing in common: they all assume that the original Godzilla movie took place. Other than that, they are all completely independent of each other. There isn't even a in-story explanation for this divergence either. I guess I will call this a Branching Alternate Universe approach.

Another example can be found in the James Bond series of movies. In the James Bond movies, there are certain characters that are constantly recurring: Bond himself, Moneypenny, M, Q, and sometimes villains such as Blofeld. However, it is hard to say that the movies are really in a single continuity. If they were, James Bond would be over 60 years old by the time of Die Another Day. However, he clearly isn't. And while there are some continuity nods, they are not very common. In a way, this is the closest model to The Legend of Zelda series. While the Bond movies try to generally maintain consistency of the personalities and quirks of the characters, they don't maintain consistency in the world at large. This allows the designers to rely on the familiarity of the characters while maintaining almost complete freedom in storytelling.

Keeping these kinds of continuity in mind can be a helpful thing, particularly when most videogames are designed without much forethought for sequels or overarching metaplots. So, when game developers sit down to plan out a sequel to a popular franchise, they should ask themselves what kind of continuity would best help them.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Why Mecha?

Because my brother posted about mecha recently, I guess I might as well explain some of the reasons I like the genre so much. In particular, I want to talk a bit about why giant humanoid robots are such a good idea from a creative perspective (since explaining why I am such a fan of giant robots is an enigma even to me). In no particular order, here are some reasons:

1) Mecha are not real. People do not actually use humanoid vehicles for military purposes in the real world. This makes them very different from things like tanks or fighter jets, which actually do exist in the real world. This means that the player of a mecha videogame (or a person watching a mecha anime), can't bring any real world preconceptions about how mecha should behave into the experience. This has a few drawbacks, but it has the huge advantage of letting the game designers do pretty much anything they want with mecha without worrying about violating a player's suspension of disbelief.

I'll use an example of this advantage at work. Real world combat vehicles are extremely limited. Anyone could tell you that a tank fights only on land, and can't go out into the ocean, fly, or fight in space. What is more, a tank is mostly a weapon for fighting other land-based vehicles. A tank can't shoot down a fighter jet, and under anything resembling normal circumstances it won't be used to attack an aircraft carrier. A mecha, however, is not limited in such a way. Many mecha series, like the influential Mobile Suit Gundam, let mecha operate in any terrain, and fight any opponent. The same Gundam can be used to fight tanks in the desert, fly through the sky to shoot down jet aircraft, or even go into space and fight spaceships. At the same time, another mecha series might limit mecha to being simply walking tanks, fighting in the same battles and against the same opponents as tanks. Mecha are only limited by the very loose tropes of the mecha genre, rather than by assumptions rooted in real world experience.

2) Mecha are humanoid. Even though mecha are (usually) lifeless machines and weapons, they can resemble a person. This resemblance makes it easier for a game designer to add anthropomorphic touches, giving a mecha the illusion of personality and individual identity. It is hard to make a tank look like anything but a tank, but it is relatively easy to make a humanoid machine look like it is smiling, like it is wearing a mask, or make it look masculine, feminine, evil, or heroic. It is even easy to give mecha body language. All of these things allow a humanoid robot to be much more easily turned into a character in its own right than a non-humanoid machine.

3) Mecha operate like a hybrid between a vehicle and a person. It is possible for a mecha to use hand-held weapons like a human would, integrated weapons like a vehicle would, or some combination of the two. This is probably a side-effect of the above two factors more than anything else, but it allows for a lot of flexibility regarding action and gameplay, and as such is a noteworthy advantage. This allows things like melee combat between large vehicles, or equipment customization mechanics for large vehicles. It also allows a game designer to introduce tropes of human vs. human combat into mechanized combat, adding flexibility. Finally, mecha with hands can do things that non-humanoid mecha can't, such as open doors, grab things, throw things, rip things apart, etc.

I could probably go on about several more details, but none of them are as specific to mecha as these three, so I will leave them for now. Any more and I might reveal a bit too much of my rabid mecha fandom...

Friday, February 8, 2008

Mecha as Icons and Representations of Characters

A big part of the Front Mission series is that the player can customize his teams mecha (known as wanzers in the game world). Each wanzer is constructed by purchasing a body, arms, legs, and backpack as well as both hand-held and shoulder weapons. A wanzer can be created using parts from different models, allowing the player to create custom machines. This is a major game element of the Armored Core series as well. However, while constructing mechs can be a lot of fun, there is a problem that arises from it. Because of certain game mechanics, including this customizability, mechs in Front Mission are less distinct, and in a way less identifiable and memorable, than mecha from other series.

This can be a problem because the mechs are often the most predominant and evocative face of a character in a mecha game or series. In Front Mission 1 and Front Mission 4, the player only sees facial portraits of the main characters outside of their mechs. I don't think the player ever even sees the face of of the main characters of Armored Core games. However, even in mecha anime series where the main characters get more screen time than their mechs, the machines they pilot are a big part of their image. Furthermore, mechs often serve as the faces of countries and organizations. In the original Gundam series for example, all of the Mobile Suits piloted by Zeon pilots had distinctive mono-eyes that moved around on tracks. They all had a unified look. It is easy to tell apart different sides on a battlefield just by looking at their mechs.

However, the Front Mission series lacks this. When I was playing Front Mission 4, I had real trouble identifying what mechs were appearing in the cinematic scenes. Since part of the plot involved one country using certain models of wanzer to pin the blame of an attack onto another country, this was actually a pertinent story detail. Even though the Front Mission world is divided into 3 major factions, none of these factions have clearly differentiated mechs. For example, in one early cutscene in Front Mission 4, I noticed that my allies' mechs had integrated gun-arms and no discernible head. However, I later fought a completely different, completely unrelated faction later in the game that used mechs that looked nearly identical.

A big part of the problem in the Front Mission series is that the player and the enemies are constantly upgrading to completely new mechs. Since the player has to change mechs every three battles or less to completely new models, you don't have much time to get used to a certain appearance for your characters. As it is, I can barely remember what my character's mechs even looked like past their paint schemes and general size. And since the enemy mechs looked different every time, I never was able to develop a good idea for what they used. All of the mechs in both Front Mission 1 and 4 kind of blur together. There is one major exception to this in Front Mission 1: Driscoll, who pilots a distinctive black wanzer called the Type-11DS which is larger than a normal wanzer.

However, there is one element of the mechs in Front Mission that I can clearly remember: their weapon load-outs. Since what weapons a mech is equipped with is highly dependent on the character's stats, every character tend to use the exact same kinds of weapon on a constant basis. So Elsa used both a machine gun in one hand and shotgun in the other, while Darril used a shotgun paired with a melee weapon. This kind of consistancy helped a bit, and helped identify various characters.

Another set of mecha games that I have to draw some comparisons to are the Xenosaga games. In Xenosaga Episode 1, the characters have their own mechs called AWGS that could be customized to use different hand and shoulder weapons, much like a wanzer. However, since the mechs themselves did not change in appearance but are instead simply upgraded, they are much more memorable. However, since the stats of the mechs were not dependant on the stats of the pilot, the mechs could be swapped around between different pilots, and only one character ever piloted a mech in a cut-scene, they tended to feel tacked on instead of serving as a second face for the characters. So while it is improved over the Front Mission series, it still can do better.

From what I have read on GameFAQs, it seems that Front Mission 5 did make some improvements on the system. In Front Mission 5, there are much fewer mechs, but they can all be upgraded and refurbished to have better stats. So, a character can go through much more of the game using the same mech if the player so chooses. This approach does maintain the customizability factor from older Front Mission games, but does allow each character to be better associated with certain mechs.

The next thing the Front Mission series needs to do is make it much clearer what factions use what machines and make every faction stick to those machines in cut scenes. That consistancy would help give the UCS, OCU, and EC more distinctive faces, so it is obvious what faction is appearing in every cut-scene. Giving major plot characters consistent and distinctive mechs (like Driscoll's Type-11DS) would also help.

Ar Tonelico Part 3

Game Completion: 65-75%, I guess.

Last time I talked about Ar tonelico, I was discussing how the Reyvateil characters, Aurica and Misha, are among the most complicated and deep characters I have ever seen in a videogame. In no small part, this is due to the various game mechanics which let you (or at least, the main hero, Lyner) interact with those two girls.

The first system of the game that helps is the simple conversation mechanic. Often, after going to a new place, using a new spell, or seeing new plot events, a conversation will occur between the hero Lyner and one of the two Reyvateils the next time you rest at camp or at an inn. It is a pretty simple game mechanic, but it is a good way to add a lot of interesting optional conversations to the game outside of the main plot. There are a lot of these (at least 64 for each of the two heroines, I think), which shows off a lot of different things about the characters. Too many games ignore the kind of casual conversation among main characters that would naturally occur, and I think such conversation has a lot to add to any kind of game focusing on character development and interaction, so I am glad to see it here.

Another minor, but fun system of the game are the reactions of the Reyvateils to any item you create through Grathmelding. This is probably the one redeeming feature of the Grathmelding system. Whenever you create an item, the Reyvateil currently in the active party will talk to the main hero about what he just created (often mocking the absurdity of the item combinations, which is is a nice way at poking fun of an odd system), and the go on to propose a name for the new item. These names reflect the sometimes eccentric personalities of the characters (Aurica uses very silly names based on odd logical leaps, while Misha tends to use elaborate and descriptive ones), which is an interesting way to employ interactivity to character development. Also, it is useful, because the main hero often comes up with the worst names for the items he makes, and the second opinion helps.

However, the biggest game system that helps with developing these two characters, and the main game system I wanted to writ about today, is the Cosmosphere system. In order to get more Song Magic abilities for a Reyvateil, you need to enter her Cosmoshpere, a virtual recreation of her mind, and directly observe and interact with her fears, thoughts, and memories in an attempt to help her resolve the scars of her past. The landscape of the Cosmosphere is a reflection of the Reyvateil's mental state, and the people who inhabit it are reflections of how she perceives the people in the real world, rather than how those people actually are. It is a great way to explore the backstory of the characters, see how different characters perceive the world, and show the deeper complexities of a character. With the Cosmosphere system, a single character temporarily becomes the setting, characters, and plot of a whole story.

I am a big fan of subjective dreamworlds, and the Cosmosphere system both fills the tropes of the concept and has a few interesting ideas of its own. Filling out the tropes, there are the prerequisite guides through the mental landscape (the Mind Guardians Hama and Don Leon, who both have humorous interactions with the main hero), the classic idea of diving from conscious thoughts towards the subconscious thoughts, characters based on subconscious ideas that act with surreal logic, and everything that happens is a fantastic analogy for real events, rather than the events themselves. An idea I have not seen before is the way that the landscape of the dreamworld changes slightly every time you reach a new level of consciousness, with old places returning with slight changes and a few new areas appearing each time as the Cosmosphere overview map changes and grows each time, even though the basic layout and certain landmarks stay constant. Another interesting idea is having each level be governed by a particular version of the Reyvateil, each of whom has her own identity both separate from and part of the real-world Reyvateil and the other Cosmosphere versions. Also, there is an interesting severe twist in the tone of the Cosmosphere when you reach the level of the Deep Subconscious. The Expressionist and surrealistic touches are everywhere, especially on the Cosmosphere overview, and they help add to the experience (though sadly these touches are not usually continued into the art for the various areas of the Cosmosphere).

Because the Cosmosphere system exists mostly outside of and separate from the main plot of the game, each Reyvateil's Cosmosphere has its own story based around the idea of helping the Reyvateil heal the wounds of her psyche and mature. These stories are told through conversation (the visuals are simplistic and unsophisticated in the Cosmosphere, which is something of a weakness), and they get very personal and emotional (the voice-acting helps a lot, even if it is a bit uneven in places). On a well-written level of the Cosmosphere, the emotional rewards of helping the heroines heal the scars in their hearts can be vastly greater than the emotional pay-offs from the main story of the game. However, they Cosmosphere system suffers from too many parallels between the stories of the two different Reyvateils (some levels are nearly identical for both sides, with one version of the similar events being great, but the other severely lacking), and some themes are repeated too often in a story, which limits the potential complexity of the story and characters.

While the thematic and narrative elements of the Cosmopshere are great, the actual gameplay of the system is severely lacking. For the most part, you go through the Cosmosphere by selecting an area with a story scene, watching the scene, and then moving on to the next area with scene and repeating the simple process over and over until the level is cleared. There are a number of optional scenes, which is nice, but beyond that there are only minor complications. Success in various events in which the Hero's presence actually matters depends entirely on how many Dive Points you have earned from battles in the main game, and since it is incredibly easy to earn tens of thousands more Dive Points than necessary, there is no real challenge. There are a few places where you get to make a choice, or have a chance at failure, but these are exceedingly rare, with the main penalty of making you simply try again. Adding more interactivity and real gameplay would have helped these sequences a lot.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Necessary Predictable Elements and Front Mission

Not too long ago, I picked up Front Mission for the Nintendo DS, which I have been playing for a few days now. I am enjoying it, although I don't think it is as good as its sequel, Front Mission 4. Since it is a remake/port of a SNES game, it was created in the relative early days of tactical RPGs, and it shows in the game's design. Recently a few annoying issues have appeared in the game, most notably the unpredictability of party size.

In Front Mission's OCU path (the only one of the two campaigns I have played so far, and the original one), you start with one character, though you quickly recruit four more characters. However, as the game goes on, you continue to recruit more and more characters. As I recruited more characters according to the plot, I noticed that the number of units I could bring into battle also increased to match at first. This even tipped me off that I had missed an early optional character. However, once I had recruited the 11th character, I noticed that the cap on the number of units I could bring into battle remained at 10. So, I logically concluded that 10 was going to be the maximum number of characters I can bring into battle.

Now then, I should bring up a few details on how the system of the game works. The only way characters can build up experience points at any rate at all is to bring them into story missions. While there is an arena, it drops paltry amounts of xp. Each mission can give a character 2 or three levels. While it is possible to catch up characters who fall somewhat behind, it can be tricky if the enemy has a big advantage. Furthermore, outfitting you combat characters with the latest mechs and weapons can be very expensive. Whenever new parts come in to the shops, I usually end up broke. So, there are clear motivating factors to not bring more characters than is necessary into a mission. It is much more difficult than it is worth to rotate characters in and out of your line-up. Front Mission isn't that different from later Tactical RPGs in this regard.

However, after fighting several missions at the ten cap, which I had assumed to be what I would be dealing with for the rest of the game, and recruiting several more characters, I suddenly ran across a mission that let me bring 11 units. So suddenly, I was short one unit for a mission. I didn't want to go to the trouble of buying equipment for a character several levels behind, so I just ran the mission with my prepared ten. However, the very next mission suddenly dropped the limit down to 8. Now, I couldn't even bring all of my prepared characters. And this came right after I had just outfitted all of them with new mechs. And since new machines became available just after than mission, I squandered thousands of dollars worth of money on equipment I never got the chance to bring into battle. And the next mission I have to go through will only let me bring 5 characters. If the mission after than lets me bring 10 again, half my party is going to be seriously under-leveled.

All of this is a serious problem with game design. Players tend to plan ahead based on patterns that emerge as a game unfolds. If every dungeon has a boss at the end of it, players will plan their resources accordingly. Constantly messing with those expectations randomly and unpredictably, particularly in a way that has a serious impact on game balance such as party size, simply frustrates the player. Future Front Mission games corrected this problem. Front Mission 4 allowed me to field all of my units every mission. No guess-work or weeding out of characters required. I think even the UCS path in Front Mission (which was added to the game in its Playstation port) was adjusted to have a fewer number of characters that are more predictably around too.

Side notes on Front Mission so far:
Between Front Mission and Final Fantasy 2, I am pretty sure that I really don't like "abilities level up as you use them" mechanics. It can be too frustrating building abilities up the way you like. I'm afraid that I have gimped my main character already.

Whenever new mech parts become available in Front Mission, I quickly discover that only two or three mechs from a batch of five to seven are actually viable. Sometimes new, more expensive parts are worse than older ones. Inevitably, it is always the dorky looking ones that are the useful ones too. Its frustrating. I think the problem was still around in Front Mission 4 too. Someone needs to go back in time and teach Square about balance.

On the other hand, having a powerful villain figure with a kick-ass mech showing up every once in a while to taunt or threaten the heroes always works in mecha stories. It certainly worked for Char, and Driscoll is doing a fine job in that role with his Type-11DS.

Advance Wars: Days of Ruin's CO Powers

One of the biggest changes in Days of Ruin that makes it differ from previous Advance Wars games is the new way that Commanding Officers are handled in battle. Previously, COs had global effects that were always in effect and CO Powers that could turn the tide of a whole battle when the CO gauge filled. CO Powers are mostly the same in Days of Ruin, but the big change is in the permanent effects and the CO gauge. Most of the changes come from how Days of Ruin introduces the idea of loading the CO onto a unit, rather than having the CO be separate from the main action.

In Days of Ruin, you must load a CO onto a unit in order to get any effect from the CO. If you don't do this, then there is no difference between having a CO and none at all (a huge change from previous games). This has no action cost for the unit (which is a good thing), but it can only be done at a unit production facility and it costs funds equal to half the cost of the unit. As such, it can't be done on a unit already in battle, and it is cheaper to make a weak unit the CO unit. Loading a CO upgrades the unit into a powerful veteran unit (about 25-35% increase in power, I think) and activating the CO Zone.

The CO Zone is the new mechanic in this game. Around the CO unit is a grey area in which the effect of the CO takes place. The size of this area depends on the CO, as well as what units are affected by the Zone and how. The in-game tutorials and menus are a bit vague on whether there is a general Attack and Defense boost to all units inside the CO Zone in addition to the CO effect, which is a problem, but the listed CO effect is very powerful, usually vastly increasing the power of certain units. Also, enemy enemy defeated by an allied unit within the CO Zone will fill the CO gauge, and as the gauge increases the radius of the Zone will increase by two squares. As such, it is very important that the CO unit is at the center of battle.

Finally, when the CO gauge is full, it is possible to use a CO Power, which costs the CO unit's action and drains the gauge completely. These abilities tend to be a bit weaker than the Super CO Powers from the last game, but they can be useful. Also, using a CO Power extends the effect of the Co Zone to all units for a single turn, which can add greatly to your army's strength. Finally, in this game some CO powers only affect units in the CO Zone, so positioning can be important.

I think this system is a great improvement over the older CO Power system, for a number of reasons. Certainly, it increases the importance of tactical positioning and movement of troops (which is one of the main focuses of the whole game), and it makes the decision about what to do with your CO and how to best defeat the enemy CO an important one. On a purely tactical level, just having a CO Zone adds a lot to the game. But beyond that, the particular implementation of the system adds a lot of choices, possibilities, and trade-offs to the game. It is cheaper to put a CO on a weak unit, and the power of the CO Zone is not affected by unit strength, so it can be a good idea to put the CO on a weak Tank or Recon unit. On the other hand, the auto-veteran status and power of the CO effect makes a strong unit even stronger, and it is important for a CO unit to live long, so making a powerful War Tank or Battleship the CO might be a good idea. Also, you have to give up the turn of the unit in order to activate a CO Power, which means that you may not get a chance to use a strong unit when you do so, which can also be a factor in this decision. This trade-off can severely add to the strategies of the game, which makes the game more fun.

Another big trade-off is the decision whether to use a CO Power or just keep the CO gauge at full, so the CO Zone remains at its enlarged size. Having a fully enlarged CO Zone is a huge benefit, and that makes it a tougher choice whether to use a CO Power or not than in the previous games, where you would not use a CO Power only if you wanted to save it for a better opportunity in a few turns (and waiting too long was usually a bad idea). With the sometimes minor benefits of the CO Powers, it means that it can be a tough decision whether to use a CO Power at all, let alone when.

One final benefit of this system is that it makes the differentiation between COs more interesting. There are some COs with weak effects but huge Zones that affect many units (such as Brenner), some COs who have moderately strong effects and large Zones but can only affect limited numbers of units (such as Will), and others who have incredibly powerful effects that only affect the CO unit itself (Tabitha). Also, the various differences in effect, and the way that attack and defense scale differently, allows there to be more variation even among Cos of similar focus. In previous Advance Wars games, there was usually people like the "Air Unit CO" (Eagle), the "Infantry Unit CO" (Sami), or the "Open Plains CO" (Jake), with one CO for each particular terrain type, unit type, or type of battle. In this game there are several COs for each particular focus, with each CO usually having multiple complimentary abilities, so that even though there are fewer COs than before there is still a lot of variety and many possibilities. The only effects that are noticeably lacking are effects which modify unit cost, mostly because it would be hard to reconcile that kind of effect with the CO Zone system, but that form of balancing may be redundant with the CO Zones anyways.

My only real complaint about the system is that the player is introduced to CO Powers quite late in the main campaign mode, after every unit and almost every major character has been introduced already. I am most of the way through the main campaign, but I have only used a CO Power about three or four times already. Unless the player plays a lot of Free Battles, he won't be able to use COs for quite a while. Besides the fact that it deprives the player of a fun game element, it results in the player having practically relearn the game and its strategies after having already mastered a lot of the system. The CO Zone has such a massive effect on strategy that it is the kind of thing that needs to be introduced to the player early.

Anyways, I am having a lot of fun with the game. Hopefully, I will complete the game soon.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Character Reversals

I have a few major pet peeves when it comes to videogame plots, and one of them came up big time while I was playing Soul Nomad & the World Eaters. In Soul Nomad, there is a certain point pretty late in the game when one of the game's main characters turns traitor in a spectacular and horrifying fashion by killing off a likable character. He then goes on to reveal that he is not under mind control or anything, he in fact was a mole and one of the major villains of the game the entire time. And I hated watching the whole thing unfold.

The biggest reason I didn't like that turn of events was because the character in question, Levin, was one of my favorite characters in the game up to that point. He was an excellent unit commander and had a very funny and entertaining personality that played well off of the other characters in the game. Since he was one of the characters who joined early in the game and never really left the group of characters who were present for every scene, he was always around too. Worst of all, there was no sign of his evil agenda leading up to his betrayal. While his explanation of the truth did tie up some loose plot threads, there was never any hint in those scenes that Levin was the one responsible for those evil deeds.

The point of this turn of events is probably to get the player to want to beat the crap of Levin, but that wasn't what I felt when I played through this part of the game. For a little while, I thought I had been kicked onto a bad ending track or something. All I really wanted was to get Levin back. Levin's betrayal actually crossed the line from "telling a good story" to outright fan abuse. It almost turned me off from playing the game, if it wasn't for all of the momentum I had already built up by playing the game so much.

There are other examples of this kind of betrayal in other games. One example I can think of is in Mega Man Command Mission. The first character you recruit in the game is Spider, a new character original to that game and a fairly fun and interesting one at that. However, later in the game, Spider nobly sacrifices his life to save the rest of the cast. Near the end of the game, Colonel Redips, the person who was giving orders to the heroes the entire game, turns around and betrays them by attacking them and killing one of the supporting cast. Then Redips goes on to reveal that he was actually Spider (or rather that Spider was really Redips the whole time). Once again, there was very little lead up to this revelation, and in this case, very little reason for it. It just bugged me. Redips's betrayal was sufficient motivation for the player to not like him without needing to undermine Spider's sacrifice.

However, there are ways to use a Mole plot effectively, without turning the plot into an exercise in fan abuse. One game that pulled it of well was Super Robot Taisen: Original Generation with the character of Ingram. Like Levin, Ingram was a major character from early in the game. However, his betrayal was much more enjoyable. The biggest difference is that I saw Ingram's betrayal coming from very early in the game. Ingram used his power to manipulate people, kept secrets from the main heroes, and obviously had various schemes going on behind the scenes. By the time he betrayed the other characters, I had already seen it coming, and I actually was looking forward to it. Ingram's betrayal meant that I now had my chance to beat his face in. It helped make the stage where he betrays the party a fun and exciting one.

The big difference between Levin and Ingram is in how the developers led up to the betrayal. Levin's felt tacked on, forced and out of character, and he was likable. Ingram's betrayal felt a lot more like a natural outcome of his personality, and he was set up to be a villain from early on in the game. If you try and pull off a Mole plot without proper development and lead in, it will just fall flat, or  just make the players hate the plot of the game.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Advance wars: Days of Ruin's New Units

I bought Advance Wars: Days of Ruin the day before yesterday, and I have been having a lot of fun with it. While I haven't played quite enough of the game to justify talking about the story yet, I have had a chance to try out all of the units in the game, so I will discuss that.

The units in Days of Ruin have changed a lot compared to the previous three entries in the series. There are a lot of changes to unit costs, many units introduced in later games have been removed, and a lot of new units have been added. For now, I think I will focus on the newer units.

Bikes: The new motorbike infantry units are a surprising change. In the previous game, the main benefit of using regular infantry over mech infantry was their improved movement. Now, bikes are the ones with great movement, so normal infantry do not have as well clarified as a role. Also, using transports to move infantry to cities is not as mandatory as it once was. I think the pros and cons of this new unit balance out to make the early phases of a map a bit more varied, though, so I think it was a good addition.

Rigs: Since Bkes steal half the purpose of the original APC, that unit has been redesigned as a more general support unit. It is still good for transporting infantry, though now it is mainly used for getting infantry across rough wasteland or forest terrain that bikes can't cross quickly. The interesting new trick is that Rigs can build temporary Seaports and Airfields, which makes it a lot easier to resupply air and sea units, and is a great innovation.

War Tanks: These things are the replacements to the Megatanks and Neotanks of Advance Wars: Duel Strike, and I think they work a lot better in the game. The old Megatanks were simply too slow and expensive to ever be useful, and Neotanks were simply too fast and powerful for a ground unit, especially with their relatively low cost. Wartanks though, manage to strike a balance of being strong, but not overpoweringly so, and slow, but not unusable. I am not certain that I would ever want to build one myself (I mostly stick to normal tanks, artillery, and air units), but they make interesting opponents in the game, so I will call this one an improvement.

Anti-tanks: This weapon is an odd one, being an expensive artillery unit that doesn't have a minimum range. I really don't like this unit. It is a bit too fragile for its ability to counterattack to really come into play, and it doesn't really have that much more power than a normal artillery unit. It seems hard to justify its very high cost (nearly twice that of a normal artillery unit). I like the idea of adding more to the artillery units, but I find this one to be forgettable at best. However, I admit that I might be underrating the fact that it is an effective counter against all types of tank, and that there are no direct-attack land units that are really effective at destroying one.

Dusters: These planes are a great addition to the game simply because they add a much-needed middle tier to the Advance Wars aerial units. Before, there was nothing between the cheap and low-powered helicopter units and the very expensive and powerful Fighters and Bombers. Dusters fill that role, letting you build a great aerial anti-helicopter unit without resorting to expensive specialized Fighters, so they work very well in supporting ground forces and helicopter units in the mid parts of the game.

Gunboats: These boats are a somewhat more combat oriented replacement to Duel Strike's odd Black Boats (which were made somewhat obsolete by Temporary Seaports). They make it cheaper to move infantry units between islands, and they are a much cheaper alternative to building Battleships in order to fight Cruisers. They are a bit difficult to use (I think they just move a bit too slow), but they are a good unit.

The new Battleship: Letting a Battleship make an indirect attack after moving was a great improvement. I never found Battleships to be very useful in previous Advance Wars games, but they are very useful in this game.

Carriers and Seaplanes: This is another old unit that has been changed so much it might as well be new. Now Carriers, which were only of dubious use in Duel Strike, have been improved so that they can build Seaplanes, extremely versatile flying units that are only slightly more expensive than Dusters and can attack any target, but have much more limited fuel and ammo than normal planes. I like this design very well, but there is one major problem: Seaplanes are just too strong. A Carrier would be a great "ultimate" unit even if the Seaplanes were not so powerful, but as it is they tend to be somewhat unbalancing. Even when I blundered and let a Carrier get quickly destroyed by an enemy Submarine, I still was able to devastate an opponent's main attack force with just two Seaplanes.

Overall, I like the way that the designers of the game focused much more on adding to the low-tier and mid-tier units in this game. Earlier games fin the Advance Wars series fell into the trap of constantly adding on more expensive and powerful units to create new top tiers, but that is not good game design. In a game like Advance Wars, most of the game is spent using larger numbers of weaker units, and many maps won't even support the use of unnecessary expensive units. It is better to make add to the variation of the units that will actually be used on a regular basis, so there are more available strategies.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Soul Nomad and Game Length

After exactly a week of determined effort, I have finally beaten Soul Nomad & the World Eaters. It took me a bit past 30 hours of gameplay to finish, which is a not a bad length for a game. Soul Nomad, a game with quite a few endings, an alternate path, and enough variety in unit choice to make trying to go through the game multiple times interesting, is the kind of game I very well might play through again some day. A longer game, such as the 60-100 hour monsters that make up the Final Fantasy series these days, makes it a lot harder to justify playing through again. Overall, I think that more RPGs should try to limit themselves to just 30-40 hour of gametime.

One of the real strengths of Soul Nomad was that the story progressed at a nice even pace. Almost every battle had a cut scene preceding it and following it, and I usually had the feeling that I was making real progress towards my goals at all times. The game had plenty of time to give each of the 8-10 or so major characters enough screen time to give a very good sense of their personalities, motivations, and fun quirks. The night sequences of the game also are an interesting story-telling technique. At regular intervals, the party settles down to take a break, during which time the player is given the choice of talking with one of three main characters (which helps determine the ending you get), followed by a dream sequence that gives one piece of the main characters' back-stories. The dreams in particular were a great way of filling in back-story of the game without a 2-hour deus-ex-machina info dump at the end of the game.

I think that the 30-hour length of the game actually helped with building its great story. If you want to keep a game short, you can't afford to have too much filler material padding it out. It forces the designers to focus on the telling the essentials, and helps keep the plot moving. A lot of recent RPGs feel like they are just padding out the length for no good reason. For example, there are points in Disgaea 2, such as the Shinra Tower, that seemed to have very little point, have little story associated with them, and tend to drag on. Soul Nomad, a 30 hour game, didn't really have any place that felt like that.

Moreover, 30-hour games are easier to play through than the more common 80 hour epics. I have already mentioned that I am more willing to play through a shorter game like Soul Nomad a second time, because it is a much smaller time commitment. However, there is more to it than that. I have a huge backlog of games stretching back to the SNES era that I want to play more of, or just finally complete. Furthermore, there are always new games coming out that are constantly grabbing my attention. There are stacks of incomplete games lying around that I haven't beaten because newer games were released before I could beat the old ones. Even a gamer with plenty of time to burn like me doesn't have enough time to play everything. I am pretty happy that I was able to beat Soul Nomad just before my birthday, since I have just bought a few new games that are currently stealing my attention.

Of course, if a game is too short, it can also be a problem. I enjoyed the Onimusha games quite a bit when I rented them, but I would never buy a game that short. That just makes the player feel cheated.

Anyways, there are still a couple of things I have to say about Soul Nomad's plot, but those will have to wait for next time.

Ar Tonelico Part 2

Game completion: A bit further, but mostly unchanged from last week.

Ar Tonelico's plot is surprisingly unique and interesting in some ways, but the game as a whole suffers from three big problems.

The first problem is simply that many of the members of the hero's team (namely, Jack, Radolf, Krusche, and probably Ayatane when I finally recruit him) are not terribly interesting. The basic idea behind each of the characters is novel (none of them are the usual cliches), and they have personalities, but they don't have much presence or depth. Their stories are tangential to the main plot of the game, and the plot only rarely focuses on them. Often, one of these character may not say very much for hours of gameplay at a time. These character pretty much exist solely to round out the line-up of meatshields in the party, which is a shame, actually, since these characters have some real potential.

The second problem with the game is the excessive sexual innuendo. Both the Cosmoshpere diving system and the Grathnode Installation system are phrased in blatantly sexual terms, which gets a bit excessive at times. I don't mind seeing sexual innuendo in games (in fact, often it seems oddly lacking even in places where it should exist), but they could probably have at least tried to be a bit more subtle about it, but instead the game hits you with it like a brick. At times, it almost feels like Ar Tonelico is the toned down version of what was originally envisioned as a porn game... On top of that, there is sexual innuendo outside of those mechanics, in the conversations with the Reyvateil characters (particularly Misha), but this is more natural because it is an outgrowth of Misha's own mischievous personality and is not out of place or linked to game mechanics.

My final, and biggest, problem with the game is that it has a love triangle. This is not really a flaw with the game itself, since love triangles work as plot devices, and it was blatantly obvious the game would have one based on the marketing for the game, but I just despise love triangles. Fortunately, this game does not have a love triangle which is resolved outside of the player's control (which is my least favorite kind), but it has the other three great potential problems of a love triangle. One problem is that both girls start out romantically interested in the hero (or at least become that way without you doing anything), which changes some of the character dynamics enough to make choices more awkward. Second, the hero at the center of the love triangle is the kind of character who wanders into a love triangle in complete ignorance, and ends up encouraging the whole mess accidentally every time he opens his mouth (an implausible and cliched combination of nobility, ignorance, and restrained perversity, really). Finally, and most importantly, both of the girls in the love triangle are complex, interesting, full of personality, and extremely likable.

While I put that last statement in a list of "problems" (which themselves are just pet peeves more than design issues), I really will say that Aurica and Misha are two of the more complex and interesting characters I have seen in a videogame. I think this is one of the greatest accomplishments of this game. Most importantly, these characters are not so complex by accident; their complexity is a direct result of numerous gameplay mechanics of the game and their central role in the plot. However, I think I am going to discuss all of those reasons on another day.

Regardless, I think it bears repeating that while there are certainly a few tropes showing up here and there in the game, Ar Tonelico's setting, plot, and characters all manage to exist fairly far outside the normally limited set of types and cliches seen in videogame RPGs. It is nice to see something which tries so hard to be refreshing, and still remains interesting.