Monthly Archives: March 2012

You must bring balance to the force…

Balance is very important. It’s the only thing that keeps the universe in order. Yin vs. Yang. Good vs. Evil. Microsoft vs. Apple. You get the picture. But in video games, it’s you against the baddies, and only one of you is going to get out alive (or in the case of Poke’mon, un-fainted…?). And when push comes to shove, balance in video games is about how much power you have  versus how tough the enemies are. Balance is yet another important aspect of video games that constantly frustrates developers, and can truly make or break a game’s playability. And in the world of making video games, it is special because each game’s balance is unique; whatever you start with is going to take some serious tweaking to be viable, no matter how much experience in the industry you have! And if your game’s balance sucks, the first bits of feedback you’ll get are: “1/5, too hard” or “1/5, too easy.” Critics. I swear.

This has got to be the most underrated game in existence.

There are many things that go into making the balance of a game good. It seems all mystical and stuff, but in reality it’s just a collection of numbers.  I mean, you say “Okay, your magic missile does… *rolls dice* FOUR damage.” Four is a number! (And while we’re stating the obvious, the sky is blue.) These numbers, when working in conjunction with each other, make up your games balance. The main things I’ve found that really affect how your game is balanced are: your survivability, your damage, and the health of enemies. If you die too quickly, then your game will be spent hiding behind a wall to avoid being hit. No fun. If it’s too high, then you’re just going to run through the levels, blasting everything that comes your way. More fun! But still, not engaging enough to make you want to play it all the way through. Same thing with your damage. And, of course, the health of enemies is the biggest thing that makes a difference, because it not only affects how the game feels, but gives you lots of options for different enemies with different health. So you can have big, bad, tough enemies, and little, annoying, squishy ones. Yay!

This is all very abstract and math-y, so let’s look at some examples! World of Warcraft is popular, and we could say its balance is pretty good. But really, is it? 90% of the time, you’re facing one enemy at a time, whittling down their health until they’re a bloody heap of loot at your feet. And no one feels powerful just facing one enemy at a time. But then, you get to what’s lovingly known as “Endgame Content,” where you have somewhere between 10 and 25 guys beating the living crap of one guy. Now, if you think to yourself: hang on, I spent this entire game 1-on-1 with regular enemies, and you’re trying to make me feel MORE powerful by making it 25-on-1? Real smart, Blizzard. But here’s the thing that changes all that and makes you feel pretty cool and powerful and like you’re doing something with your life (okay, maybe not that last one).  When you have that team of 25 people, you’re free to totally let loose with your powers, because (wait for it!), your survivability changes completely! All of a sudden, instead of worrying about dying, you now have healers and things covering your butt and keeping you from death, which you are unfortunately NOT blessed with in regular 1-on-1 combat. Whoa, Blizzard, it’s like you do this whole balance thing pretty well!

Let’s find another example. This other, totally unknown and unpopular Blizzard game, Diablo 2, has in my opinion some of the best balance choices of any game ever, and I’ll tell you why (as if you doubted that I would). In Diablo 2 there are 5 types of enemies: Regular enemies, Boss enemies, Champion enemies, Quest enemies, and Final Boss enemies. (Yes, these categories have been arbitrarily created by me, but I’m writing the blog here, so suck it up!) Now the regular enemies, from the very beginning of the game, can be torn through like bloody evil tinfoil. They come in huge packs which eventually threaten your existence, but only if you’re really not paying attention. This is great because it makes you feel like you’re this awesome superhero, who vanquishes little annoying lizard-things with relative ease. Boss enemies are much tougher versions of normal enemies with special powers. Beating on them takes a while, but boy, does it feel good when they die. In that situation, your survivability’s down, your damage is up (because it’s focused on one enemy), and the enemy’s health is increased. But the balance feels right, even though it’s different than normal. Champion enemies are groups of slightly-less-than-boss-level enemies. Yet a different feeling of balance! Now come the fun ones: Quest enemies and Final Bosses. These are exceedingly tough enemies, and truth be told I think this is where the balance of the game breaks down a little bit. It’s rough to be constantly beating on an enemy with little or no indication that you’re really getting anywhere. Eventually, however, you finish them off, and it’s both well-rewarded with gear/uprgades, and with plot progression. And how those fights are balanced really makes the difference as to whether or not you feel like you really DID something, even if it took you a long time.

Interesting side note about that: Boss names are randomly generated, but their health bars are the length of their name. So if you have a Diablo 2 boss named “Ted,” then each hit feels like you’re taking away about a pixel of his health. But if you have a boss named “Angerfist, the Pustulant Harbinger of Doom and Destroyer of World-Eating Zombie Dragons,” then each hit makes it look like you’re taking away like 3 letters of  his needlessly lengthy name! It’s an interesting Diablo 2 kind of thing. Unfortunately, Diablo himself has a very short name, and boatloads of health, so you’re really working for that next pixel of damage, and generally dying a lot in the process.

It all makes sense, really. And if you think about it, it’s pretty crazy that Blizzard can take two games with essentially the same style of gameplay (one hero versus many baddies), and yet can make satisfying gameplay out of 1-on-1 and “1-on-wow, that’s a lot of enemies.” You get the feeling how unique balance is? And truth be told, there’s one aspect of it that’s really more important than how easy or difficult the game is. That aspect is how the game FEELS. Balance, in its very essence, is about feeling. It’s about how powerful you feel when you’re mowing down armies of enemies, or how helpless you feel against that final boss. It gives games variety within their own combat system, and it keeps you engaged as you figure out how to fight tougher enemies, or gloriously shoot down hordes of weaker ones (I don’t know if you can tell, but I love killing those weaker enemies. It’s a better stress-reliever than yoga!).

On a slightly more interactive note: to illustrate my point about balance, there’s a specific kind of game genre called “Bullet Hell.” These games have a pretty fun balance typically characterized (I bet you’d never guess this from the name) by a LOW survivability.  Check out one of my favorites here. Dodge, dip, duck, dive, and dodge, folks.

That's a lot of green bullets. Also, for extra bonuses, the closer they get to you without hitting you, the better. Hooray.

So that’s that. Think about it the next time you play a game like Ratchet and Clank, or Ninja Gaiden, or Mass Effect. How does it feel? I don’t mean to sound like your resident video gamer Freudian shrink, but seriously. You’ll realize that not only did the game designers really make an awesome gameplay experience for you, your character is really effective at blowing stuff up, and it feels good. 😀

~Another Gamer

P.S. So… tell me about your mother.

Levels… so many levels…

I’ve talked about a lot of different aspects of video games, that make them interesting, engaging, brilliant, and, quite frankly, make them art. I’ve written about their music, their gameplay, the innovativeness, and lots of other things that are all wrapped up into the whole of awesomeness that is a good video game. But what I really think bears talking about today is the level design of games in the past, and games today. They’re like night and day, but most people don’t realize this because they’re too busy killing Covenant/Zombies/Foreign Armies/Reapers/Whatever You Happen To Be Shooting At. Read the rest of this entry

How to Play Games and Win Success Forever.

Last post, if you read it, was about learning to play video games/computer games, and how it makes it easier to learn to play new games. It’s all cumulative, and it gets easier every time. Wow, I just summed up like a thousand words into the space of 2 sentences. Maybe I should be doing this on Twitter.

But this post is about something totally different! Promise. It involves a friend of mine, who we’ll call Bob. Honestly, I don’t know if anyone actually has a friend named Bob, but I can assure you that this guy’s name is not actually Bob. So Bob and I hang out a lot, and we play video games together. Since the whole single-console multiplayer thing has basically all but died, we’re limited to Halo, co-op Katamari, and watching each other play single-player games while absently screwing around with Minecraft on a laptop. Now usually this isn’t a problem, but recently we went in halvsies on a purchase of the glorious Mass Effect 3. Now, I’m not going to talk about the day-1 DLC, I’m not going to talk about the ending, I’m not going to talk about how BioWare is selling out and they’re the new embodiment of Satan on planet Earth (have you even LOOKED at Syria recently? Quit yer whinin’).

I know who *I* think looks more evil and dangerous. Hint: They're on the left.

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Dude, you suck at video games.

Some people are born noobs. Others have noobness thrust upon them. Actually everyone’s born a noob, but many of us lost that status so long ago, we forgot what it was like to be a video game virgin. When we pick up a controller, we feel it’s so natural, it’s as if it was created for our human hands. Which it was. But it feels so natural for another reason. When something says “Press the B button,” you don’t have to look down, and go “Hmm, where’s the B button… it’s the red one? Oh, it’s the re– Hey, I died on the tutorial level.” My point being, when a gamer plays enough, they know their controller quite well, even if they only play one or two games on it. But wait, why does it matter?

It matters because it greatly affects how we play games. We, in our foggy gamer brains, believe that when we pick up a game, we learn how to play it from the ground up through the inevitable in-game tutorial, and then proceed to tear through it in our own awesome gamer fashion. But, recently, I had an epiphany that such is not the case! (It’s a good thing I have epiphanies twice a week or this blog would be pretty dead). And this epiphany was caused by my lovely girlfriend and I playing Halo.

It gives me joy to think that behind that mask, a cute girl is controlling Master Chief.

Now it’s an obligation for every gamer guy to talk incessantly about his girlfriend and how cool she is, because the stereotype of being a single, deadbeat loser is too pervasive to prevent us from saying now and then, “SEE? SEEEE? She actually likes me!” But that’s not why I’m talking about her. I’m talking about her because… well… she’s not very good at Halo. Immediately you say, “Well, duh, she’s a girl who’s not a gamer, she’s gonna hate all video games.” Truth is, she enjoyed playing a lot, regardless of the fact that she was an armor-covered gun-toting sack of “shoot me now, please.” And here’s the reason why she’s like that: she doesn’t play enough video games to know all this crap. We went through the tutorial together, it tells her “Use the A button to jump, use the R-Trigger button to fire,” yadda yadda, in typical Halo fashion. But is she just challenged, or something? She can’t pick this stuff up as easily as we did? Is it just a girl thing?

No, stupid. It’s a video game thing! Look back on your extensive history of playing First-Person (or 3rd person) Shooter games on the XBOX or 360. What control stick do you use to look around? What control stick do you use to move? What button to fire? What button to reload, to melee, to jump, to switch weapons? Oh my goodness! THEY’RE ALL THE SAME. In nearly every game that involves moving and looking and jumping (which is quite a few, mind you), these buttons are standard. 100%. So when I pick up Red Dead Redemption, I say to myself in the depths of my Freudian subconscious: “I know most of this crap, and the tutorial will tell me the 2 things that aren’t exactly the same as everything else.” So after that brief little refresher, I proceed to tear through the first enemies of the game like a bulldozer running into a wall of marshmallow fluff. Because I KNOW THIS CRAP. Because we all know this crap if we played Halo when it came out 10 years ago (holy cow. That is old). She’s bad at Halo because she can’t move and look at the same time, because she doesn’t automatically reload, doesn’t automatically shoot when the crosshairs turn red, she doesn’t automatically mash the B button when a creepy thing pops up in front of her. But we do, and we can adapt to any number of new games seamlessly because we do.

Numerous examples of "Gee, this seems strangely familiar" XBOX control schemes.

Or so I thought. The XBOX (and PlayStation) controllers are a standard, pretty-much-unchanging example of controller schemes that, while they might not be intuitive, are used so often than once you learn them, it’s easy to learn new game mechanics quickly. As for Nintendo controllers, I don’t know what the hell they’re doing but we’re going to go through it again once the Wii-U comes out. Yay.  But I digress. The thing is, I thought myself really good at Halo, and FPS games in general, because I did all these things on XBOX. But I’ll never forget the first day I went to an internet cafe with some buddies and we played Halo, the PC version. This was before I’d started playing WoW, or any other legitimate PC game besides Diablo 2. You move in PC Halo using the WASD controls, something I’d never really heard of or mastered. And I got my butt kicked. Seriously handed to me, again and again, finding myself totally incapable of performing even the simplest of tasks because this whole “moving” thing was so difficult for me! But, again, keeping with today’s theme, once you learn to play with the keyboard, a thousand games suddenly become quite simple to pick up and get good at. It’s like riding a bike, only most of what you’re doing is shooting things.

Look, it's the best of both worlds.

So the idea that some of us are just “good at games” and others aren’t isn’t cut and dry; it isn’t that proficiency at certain video games just comes more naturally to some people, while other find it difficult. The fact of the matter is, when you become a gamer, you do more than learn to play a certain video game, you learn how to play video games in GENERAL. You learn the skills to adapt you to any virtual situation the limits of the game system can throw at you. Except “Katamari Damacy.” Jeez, that game was weird. The least lame flash version is below. Naaaa-nanananana-na-na Katamari Damacy!

Who knew rolling crap up was so addictive?

~Another Gamer

 

P.S. I say crap a lot, apparently. It’s  a very versatile word.

Achievement Unlocked!

Congratulations, me! It’s my 10th legitimate post on this awesome website. In my short time here, I’ve accumulated acclaim, many followers, national renown, and had Rush Limbaugh call me a slut. It’s been a good run so far, and I have no intention of stopping anytime soon! And for some reason, on this portal to the blogosphere, they have a tally that keeps track of the number of posts you have published, and a goal that incrementally becomes higher as you fulfill it! To me, it kind of feels like an achievement. And, (amazingly enough) that’s what I’m planning on talking about today: Achievements.

I'm still working on getting this one.

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To the victor goes the… what, exactly?

If you’ve been with my blog since the very beginning (love you, mom) then you’d kind of get the fact that I like talking more about what makes games TICK as opposed to particular games that are good or bad. I have a feeling that at some point I’ll talk a little more specifically, but for now, there’s plenty to talk about as far as general gaming is concerned.

So why do we play games? You know, I really hate rhetorical questions. They delude people into thinking they’re being all philosophical and deep and stuff, when everyone else is like, “Wow, this guy is so boring he even answers his own questions.” Since right now you readers fall into the 2nd category, I’ll answer my own question: we game, basically, because we are compelled to by the mechanics of the game itself. Dang, you thought I was joking about being deep and philosophical (and stuff)! But what I mean is that an essential component of ANY game, whether it be Pacman or Mass Effect 3 (heck yes.), there’s something built into the game that keeps us going. What fruit is going to appear next? You don’t know, but you evade those ghosts and eat those pellets because you want to find out!! (supposedly.)

Case in point. What th heck is that near the end??

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Indie Gaming, Sandboxes, and More!

What the heck is “Indie Gaming”? Is it like… regular gaming, only acoustic, with lyrics that don’t rhyme, and can only be played while smoking and wearing a beret? No, wait, that’s something else entirely. “Indie Gaming” is a phenomenon that (in the grand cosmic scale of video game history) has begun only recently. Ironically, in an effort to better define what “Indie Gaming” is (okay, I’m not using the quotes around it anymore)… I looked it up on Wikipedia, only to find that it says that there’s no widely accepted definition. Thanks for nothing, you digital know-it-all. But basically, indie stands for independent, and game stands for… well, you know. So these games are independently created and generally rely on online electronic distribution to spread their amazingness. Now I know what you’re thinking: indie games that can only be distributed electronically? These are the games that only hipsters play, right? No one’s heard of them, and that’s the way they like it. Well have you heard of… say… Minecraft?

Hooray, Minecraft! I use blocks to make blocks that mine other blocks!

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And on the 7th Day…

…God was bored so he created video games. For those of us that love them, we know there is something of the divine in video games. Only a religiously inspired programmer could have created the genius that is Mario. (MARIO’s not exactly a genius, but the games are).

Look at the dark intelligence behind those eyes. He knows this is the 19th time he's rescued the Princess.

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Another look at classic gamine through the lens of the new Mario Kart 7. Let’s be honest, everyone loves Mario Kart. And just in case that’s not enough:

http://xkcd.com/290/

GrindQuest

Today, we’re looking at the origin of the Mario Kart series, so that we can see how everything has changed over time. Super Mario Kart came out in 1992, two decades ago. I don’t remember getting this game, I simply remember having it as a young child, and I played it quite a bit with my older brother. I’m going to do my best to be objective, but I can’t promise that I will be able to keep nostalgia totally out of this.

Super Mario Kart was a break from the norm for racing games in many ways. The races took place on gimmicky tracks and had items that allowed you to trip up your opponents, and generally had less emphasis on the fast-paced driving action of its peers, settling in an area that I would characterize as anti-competitive. Sure, you wanted to win, but sometimes you might be more…

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The Blizzard Epidemic

You’re a serious gamer, right? I mean, your 4 food groups are chips’n’dip, hot wings,  cold pizza and Mountain Dew. You think that by going to bed early, you mean 3 or 3:30am, and you cancel that date you (finally) picked up from the online matchmaking service because it conflicted with your XBOX live time. Wait, no? You’re married to a wonderful woman (or man, even), work full time, have 3 kids who you’re trying to get through the public school system? You have an SUV, a mortgage, and you are looking forward to a relatively comfortable retirement? And you pay fifteen bucks a month to play World of Warcraft. How is this POSSIBLE?!?!?!? World of Warcraft is the bane of existence! It dominates your life! You lose real life friends and replace them with NPC’s in-game! You tell your guildmates that you’re going to go back “into real life” for a bit, like this is Inception and your fantasy world has become reality! It’s a terrifying, life-sucking, social-adjustment-destroying monster. Right? Read the rest of this entry