Hello, ladies and germs! Actually, I should say “guten Tag!” because I’m in GERMANY.
Whoa. Guys, I’m in Germany.
For the new folks here at the blogoblag, let me fill you in: I’m studying electronic music at the Hochschule Trossingen. Unbelievably rad! My studies begin in about 4 weeks, but right now I’m taking a 6-week long INTENSE German language learning course. Every day, 6 hours a day, just German. I haven’t been speaking a lot of English lately, so forgive me if I occasionally use a German word now and then. Actually, that won’t happen, as these blogs are rigorously edited for spelling and grammatical errors.
So, the transition from American culture to German culture has been a little bit difficult. I had my trusty DS with me, and I’ve been playing a lot of Poke’mon: White to pass the time. I’m staying with a host family that didn’t have internet (UNTIL TODAY thank Jobs), and so I was woefully without games that require the internet to play (like Diablo and Starcraft and often Minecraft and a lot of Steam games) and games that require the internet to DOWNLOAD (like the new Android Humble Bundle 3. I hope you bought it!). But now, German DSL is screaming along, giving me access to you, my dear readers, and to a wonderful cornucopia of other things like Facebook and Reddit. Actually, those things aren’t wonderful. They’re just excuses not to go outside and see this totally different, beautiful country that I’m in. So, perhaps I’ll slack off on keeping up with my American friends or the newest cat pictures.
But this blog! It must not be forgotten.
This particular post isn’t actually going to have anything of real substance (deep, well thought-out opinions about the true nature of video games will come later. Pinky swear). However, it’s going to let you know that all is not lost! There might be a brief hiccup when I move from my current location to Trossingen, because, well… new living location, lots of stuff to do, no internet, yadda yadda. Everyone who’s ever moved out of their parents’ basement knows what I’m talking about: that brief couple of days (or weeks) that you realize there is NO WAY for you to know what anyone else on the planet is doing. Interesting feeling.
So! The rest is bookkeeping. It is rather late here, and I almost said “the rest is beekeeping.” Perhaps a more interesting hobby, but I don’t think the analogy works here.
I’ve been nominated for the “One Lovely Blog” award by two separate people: cary, a longtime follower (really, one of the first) and a damn good game blogger in her own right, and Brendan, a blogger I wasn’t familiar with until, well, he sent me his nomination. Mea culpa.
As I tend to Google things, I have discovered that a ton of people have been “nominated,” and that there’s actually no one who really AWARDS these things. However, it’s totally nice and cool and it was the impetus for me to get my butt onto the computer and do some serious writing about video games! So, thank you both for the nominations… I found it very sweet.
About my day job (you know, this whole “music” thing I’ve flown halfway across the world and abandoned my family and friends to pursue). Before I left I spoke with a friend who has been in the film and video game industry for a long time, often as a certain type of artist, but as of late more as a representative for other creative types. I won’t be too specific, but she’s pretty awesome and knows EVERYONE. Anyway, we got to talking about how I would absolutely love more than anything to write music for games. It’s been a pipe dream that I’ve never considered to be a real possibility, but she was very supportive (which is a big thing, considering she KNOWS the industry and how difficult it is to enter). She mentioned something about lending her support in a more tangible way (which I also won’t mention here), but would perhaps be my “foot in the door,” so to speak. It’s not a free ride. I’d have to work hard. I’d have to start at the bottom, getting coffee for people like Hans Zimmer or Nobuo Uematsu (truthfully, getting coffee for the people who GET COFFEE for these composers). I jest, a little bit, but the important thing is, that I’d be working in that industry. Here’s the caveat: if I did take her up, I’d probably be working for a LARGER game company (think EA or Blizzard or Bethesda or something). They employ a lot of people, and as you may have read, I’m not always on their side. I think my goals and my ideals align more with an indie game group, but alas, it’s pretty much impossible to “apply” for a job in that world. It’s a great deal more about knowing the lead programmer (for example).
So what do you think? It’s a complicated decision, to be sure. Fortunately, I don’t have to make it for a year yet, and by then, everything could change. But I’m interested to know what everyone thinks.
That’s all for today! Sorry about not having any unrelated analogies or funny pictures. More will come. I just wanted everyone to know that I haven’t died or fallen off the face of the earth. I’m just on the OPPOSITE face of the earth. Completely different thing.
P.S. Here are some games. I think they’re awesome, but a couple of them will be relevant to my next post. SO PLAY THEM! Don’t slack off, you have gaming to do.
Dibbles: A puzzle game with a rather morbid (and awesome) twist.
Zombotron… 2! (even more fun than the original.)
Glean: I love these types of games. Perhaps not a “blatant” ripoff of MotherLode, but similar. This one, however, is complex, rather beautiful, and extraordinarily well-written. As far as flash games go, I recommend it very highly. Play it, be completely engrossed, leave a comment when you remember that there exists an internet outside of finding the next treasure chest.
P.P.S. I’m glad to be back. I don’t know if you could tell. I’ve missed writing about video games so much. I haven’t stopped being passionate about them, so not being able to write is a rough business. I’m glad to be back.
There’s a wonderful Robert Frost poem, something about the road less traveled by. It’s a heartfelt and florid plea for you to live your life exceptionally, and not to just be the next lemming off the cliff of doing what’s popular. There are probably about four people reading my blog who actually know what the heck I’m talking about, but then again, there are only four people who read my blog. 100% Success! Anyway. This idea is applicable, of course, to more than vague, non-specific life choices! And unless you think this is a blog about poetry for which composer Eric Whitacre was sued for, then I guess we’re talking about video games.
So what about video games? Am I being philosophical, and saying that video game developers should “take the road less traveled by”? They should be novel and new instead of creating another first-person shooter? Not at all, go for it! What I’m talking about is for the GAMER. No game is EVER perfectly linear. The very idea of gaming implies a choice between different options, whether it is to try to get the cherry in Pac-Man, or to go down the pipe in Mario, or to merely reflect the ball vs. trying to spin it on the tip of the paddle in Pong. That’s the wonderful thing about video games! They are full of choices. Of course, as video games have progressed, so have the choices. What began as “do I want to go down the pipe?” progressed to “do I want the feather outfit or the fire flower outfit?” progressed to “do I want the frog, fire flower, feather, raccoon, giant boot, pink evening dress or yellow spandex outfit?” in Mario (guess how many of those are actual outfits you can wear). But also, you get choices for endings. You could save the animals in Super Metroid. You could get married (or not) in Harvest Moon. You began to see tons of different options for loyalty, gameplay, relationships, storyline, endings, allies/enemies, and sidequests. It’s magnificent and (if you play games by BioWare) you can see the effects of that change today.
While that’s all wonderful and I’m pleased as punch that games have taken a turn toward the customizable, I really just want to talk about the gameplay aspect of these choices. And really, what is there besides gameplay in a game? Everything that happens in the game is caused by a choice you make (which, in lame-and-mundande World, we call those choices “playin’ the frickin’ game”). But, even more specifically, how your gameplay choices affect the rewards you receive! We have been conditioned as gamers to understand the golden rule of gaming: the more difficult it is to achieve, the better the rewards are. Hence, true to the title of this post: The path of least resistance is for wussies.
Moving on. Resistance is a funny term. We use the phrase “path of least resistance” without actually thinking about what the word means. Resistance is a measure of the difficulty of the obstacles the gamedevs put in the way of some goal that the player is trying to achieve. In Mario, it’s Goombas, Koopas and bottomless pits of death and agony. In Metroid, it’s Space Pirates, indigenous flora and fauna, and the occasional bloodsucking Metroid (it IS the name of the game, I suppose). In Final Fantasy, it is puzzles and battles, both random and scripted. But the gamedevs put these things there to present a challenge. However! They serve another purpose.
They tell us where to go. (Ka-blam! That was the sound of your mind being blown.) In the game Diablo (which I love to reference a lot), enemies do not respawn. So, logic quickly follows that enemies = someplace I haven’t been yet. It’s the simplest explanation for what I’m trying to illustrate, but it works. The resistance that the developers of these games put in place for us is a SIGNAL to us that this is a direction we should progress in. The LEVEL of that resistance is another signal to us. Is it higher or lower than what we have previously encountered? Is it easily avoidable or placed squarely in your main means of progression? These are subconscious clues to us as gamers that give us an idea as to where we MUST go, where we WANT to go, and where we want to really, really stay away from. They are wordless bits of information that the game developers place in the game to nudge us in the direction of advancing through the game.
The way I see it, there are two end goals in mind when the level of resistance changes in a game. The first kind uses difficult fights and tasks to serve as a benchmark to your progress through the game. Think “boss fights,” people. To get to the end of the level (and progress to the next one), you have to beat the King Slime! You have a choice to go through the main path and fight the King Slime, or you can go down this other path full of mini-slimes. In these games, what does going down the side path usually yield? (All together now!) TREASURE! Goodies, equipment upgrades, gold, potions, things that help you to die less in the inevitable altercation with the boss. For example, try this delightful little gem: Epic Battle Fantasy 3. It’s quite like Final Fantasy (which certainly provides a lot of the kind of resistance I’m talking about here), but it’s free and you can play it on your computer. At least get through the first boss! You’ll see what I mean.
The other kind of resistance occurs in games where the main goal is simply to progress through a level. Think Metroid, or even Megaman (minus the bosses). The level is set up with pretty manageable challenges of dexterity, battle prowess, and puzzle-solving abilities. But then, there are areas of EXTREME puzzling, impossible feats of jumping and dashing, or incredibly tough baddies, stuck in the middle of nowhere for no apparent reason. But there IS an apparent reason! TREASURE! (It’s always about treasure, isn’t it?) This seems exactly the same as what I said before, only in this instance, the easier path is the MAIN path, and the only time you encounter any true survival difficulty is when you go for that missile tank or that extra armor. The main path requires you to freeze some enemies and jump on top of them, whereas the energy tank upgrade requires arduous wall-jumping and crazy Samus backflips that would make my yoga instructor jealous. The big difference in these games is that your “treasure” is permanent. That upgrade stays with you for the rest of the game, so the gamedevs nudge you to AVOID getting it, as opposed to nudging you TOWARDS it to prepare you for some other altercation. A perfect game to show this is called Endeavor. It is a platform RPG, and that’s all I’ll really tell you. Notice how hard you’ll have to try to get some of the upgrades you seek.
So there are many kinds of resistance, it’s true. Some lead you to explore new areas of the game, some discourage all but the most dedicated gamers from venturing near. But resistance, in itself, is an awesome tool that game developers use to guide the user through the game, and encourage a certain course of action (while perhaps rewarding the gamer if their encouragement is ignored). You see? As if we needed more proof that the Borg are a little off in the head: they keep saying, “Resistance is futile.”
I know you’re all shouting “Hooray!” right about now, but let’s be honest. For a blog that updates only twice a week, writing something about Diablo four days after its release would be like updating your Facebook status through snail mail. It’s a day late and a dollar short (because postage is expensive!). But, you know, I’m gonna do it anyway. Because the blog-gods have blessed me with the ability to write exhaustively about nearly anything. And to what greater purpose can I devote my abilities (superpowers, really) than to the GREATEST GAME TO COME OUT SINCE the greatest game that came out before it, whatever that was. Probably some Poke’mon game or another. And while this may seem to be exactly the same stuff as is in my blog about the Diablo 3 beta… it’s, well, not. I’ve played it more, seen more of the game, and have more to say about it. Much to your enjoyment, I’m sure.
Diablo 2 was a pretty frickin’ awesome game. I’m just gonna put that one out there before I go any further. Diablo 2 climbed the Mount Olympus of PC gaming, beat the crap out of Zeus, and pronounced Blizzard ruler of all awesomeness forever and ever, amen. And that certainly hasn’t changed. Diablo 2 rocked the world with its algorithmically generated dungeons, amazing abilities, cool music, rich storyline and voice acting, fluid combat system, gratuitous violence, and visually stunning environments (for that day and age). I mean, jeez, how many more qualities of gaming are there? Oh noes, it doesn’t have Wii-motion technology. Suck it up, Nintendo-philes! D2 was the pinnacle of gaming for its time, and I bought it at a very developmental time in my life (around 5th grade or so). So, this game holds a very special place in my heart. My time hearing the words “Stay awhile and listen!” over and over and over were well spent.
But okay, guys: I got a beta invite to Diablo 3. When I found out they were making a 3rd Diablo game, I leapt for joy. Pretty much. Maybe not actual leaping, but there was some definite freaking out. I began following the lore religiously, watching as each new development came out, got a desktop background, scrolled through pages of fanart, and adopted a chihuahua and named him “Baal, Lord of Destruction.” That’s how excited I was. Now, of course, school started and I was dragged kicking and screaming back to reality, so I completely stopped following any of the hype, because Blizzard hadn’t put out a release date. And then Blizzard put out a release date, and I got a beta invite. And now, without knowing anything knowing anything about the actual gameplay, I delved into the awesomeness that is Diablo 3.
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.
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.
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. 😀
P.S. So… tell me about your mother.
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