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11:46 PM on 09.25.2015

A Transgender for my Transgressions

So we've all seen the news articles lately that Assassin's Creed: Syndicate is adding a transgendered character to the game, and I'm sure a lot of people are patting themselves on the back now feeling like a huge victory for the gaming industry was accomplished here. However, let's slow things down and think about this for a second. In the world of business, a company's job isn't to make you feel good. It is to make money, so whenever a company is trying to make you feel good, always take it with a grain of salt and look for an ulterior motive. You would do especially well to remember this when the company we're dealing with here is Ubisoft.

I want to add some context to what I'm about to say so people can understand that what I'm going to say isn't an isolated incident. Let's look at the case of Coca Cola and obesity. Coca Cola has been a huge proponent of fighting obesity. In fact, they've even started a whole campaign dedicated to fighting obesity called "Coming Together: Help Us Fight Obesity". I'm going to link their page on it for convenience's sake so you can follow along. Coca Cola: Let's Fight Obesity Together.

Good old Coca Cola suggests such great things as "Walking the Dog, playing less video games (Shots Fired!), playing outside, and teaching nutrition." Hmm, I wonder what Coke's steps to better nutrition are. Let's find out. Wow, rearranging your plate and helpful tips like "Sprinkle on Cinnamon" and "Toss in a Turnip" are included in their 12 tips. But somehow, I feel like Coke is missing something... Oh, wait! I know! It's drinking less soda! Of course, that makes sense. "We're only as progressive as we need to be until it affects our bottom line". Coca Cola will is even willing to go as far as nearly $120 million on medical research to find the "cause" of obesity. Coca Cola's tactic of "helping people" always involves shifting the blame to something else. In Coke's eyes, the problem is lack of exercise, big portions, unhealthy eating habits, snacking, etc. But it's never drinking Coke. Knowing this, let's bring Ubisoft back into focus. Considering this is Destructoid, let's not forget the legacy of crap Jim Sterling has taught us about Ubisoft's terrible legacy.

Ubisoft is a company that releases unfinished games. Assassin's Creed: Unity was a terrible, buggy and glitchy mess that tried to hide how bad it was by using review embargoes to hide how bad their game actually is. So in Ubisoft's mind, it's ok to release barely working versions of a new game and hide the fact that it works horribly by making sure that any information telling you how bad the game is remains hidden until you spend your $60 and suffer the buyer's remorse for yourself.

Ubisoft is also a company that thinks it's perfectly ok to screw over PC gamers because those poor suckers have no option for a refund (or at least didn't before). In their eyes, PC gamers have no worth because Game Stop doesn't exist for them, and they're always buying new. PC gamers get to deal with always online DRM that would boot them from their game if they ever lost internet connection, and got a huge middle finger if they didn't save their game. Ubisoft has gone on record defending their terrible DRM practices and outright admitting that they have nothing but contempt for PC gamers. In Ubisoft's eyes, the PC gamer is a filthy, swash buckling pirate who will never spend a doubloon on Ubisoft games, so they can all go to hell. In fact, Ubisoft thinks so little of PC gamers that in their eyes it's ok to release broken and unoptimized versions of Assassin's Creed 4, Splinter Cell: Double Agent and Dust because "it's not important." And PC gamers still get to deal with Ubisoft's terrible UPlay whenever they want to purchse PC versions of their titles, like Watch_Dogs. Yes, lovely UPlay.

Oh, and since we're Watch_Dogs, let's talk about how Ubisoft loves to feed gamers bullshit. Did you know that playing a game at 30 FPS is actually more "cinematic"? I didn't know this, but thanks to Ubisoft, I've been educated. Whenever I go to the movie theater, my film experience is never complete without doing 10 hours worth of fetch quests and mini-games before I get back to watching the actual main plot of the film. Wait, is everyone else telling me that they don't perform useless side quests that are typical of a Ubisoft game while they watch Guardians of the Galaxy? Maybe I'm just confused, but perhaps it could be because video games aren't movies. Even if a player doesn't actually care what frame rate a game runs at, everyone cares when you try to lie through your teeth to them. It's ok to admit that you couldn't achieve what you aim for due to limitations, but it's not ok to lie about it so everyone still thinks you're the "cool guy". If only Ubisoft's trash ended here, but in the words of the late Billy Mayes, "But wait, there's more!"

Ubisoft is a company that puts microtransactions in a full priced game. Hell, it was only last year that Assassin's Creed: Unity came out infested with microtransactions. Of course, they always use the defense that "the game is balanced so that you get get everything for free." Yeah, if in the eyes of the player, "balance" is doing the same, repetitive tasks over and over again to grind for an in-game currency that's purposefully made hard to get in order to wear down a player's patience and open up their wallet. Details are still scarce on Assassin's Creed: Syndicate, but I'm still waiting for the press release of how "balanced" their microtransactions are in this game compared to Unity. Luckily, Ubisoft decided that Syndicate doesn't need a stupid compainion app like Watch_Dogs and Black Flag did, so I'll leave that one alone. But let's follow up on Ubisoft lies with more lies.

Ubisoft thinks it's ok to use bullshots to falsely advertise its games. Again, it was only a year ago that players learned that Watch_Dogs used bullshit footage from its original announcement. And like the snakes they are, Ubisoft goes on to defend itself saying that "Of course it is not downgraded at all. It's a true next-gen game for sure". Yes, it's not downgraded at all, Ubisoft, except for after the game comes out, the money is made and the pre-orders are cashed in. A year later, Ubisoft can admit "That’s what we learned from the Watch Dogs experience – if it can’t be played on the target machine, it can be a risk." Maybe I'm missing something here, but it seems to me that if a company makes a version of a game that can't be played on the console's hardware, requiring a downgrade to fit console specs, then it seems to me that a game has been downgraded. I guess in Ubisoft's eyes, a game only counts as downgraded once it already has your money.

Now let's bring this all home. How many years has Ubisoft been doing this trash? How many years have fans of their games put up with with their garbage in order to play the games they like? And after all these years, Ubisoft has done nothing. In fact, Ubisoft has a vicious cycle of screwing over gamers, asking for forgiveness, then proceeding to keep screwing over gamers. Ubisoft always finds a new way to piss off its fans, and I have no doubt that Syndicate will pull some kind of travesty on gamers. Hell, Syndicate already had five different retail editions and a season pass. Oh, and Syndicate already has day one DLC missions, "Runaway Train" and "The Darwin and Dickens Conspiracy". Extra missions certainly aren't cosmetic content, so clearly Ubisoft has already cut content from the game to sell it to you. Plus, the extra missions, "The Dreadful Crimes" is a PS4 exclusive DLC that, once again, was developed before the game was released. Somehow, no one is talking about this.

Ubisoft would instead like to generate positive buzz about Syndicate by announcing to the world that a mission giving NPC is a transgendered man. Just like how Coke likes to brush its problems under the rug, Ubisoft is also hiding it's bullshit behind feel good news. Notice how they announced this only a few weeks before the game's launch? What are they really trying to hide about the game while the internet is busy arguing about this? This is Ubisoft we're talking about, so don't tell me they're being honest and innocent. How is it that after almost a decade of fans criticizing their horrible business practices, Ubisoft still doesn't care and changes nothing, while in only a year a minority of people complain about diversity, and suddenly Ubisoft is a "moral" company in gaming, right up there with "patron saint" Electronic Arts. Making an NPC a transgendered person is cheap and costs nothing. Actually not screwing buyers over by making sure your games work, not slicing up content into exclusive DLC, not selling five versions of the same game and not having DRM costs money, and just like Coke, Ubisoft will only go as far in being "good" until it affects their bottom line.

Feel good all you want about divesity, but if your idea of diveristy is insincere marketing ploys, then you're in for a rude awakening when the marketability of it passes.

BK Kids

Anyone remember this "diversity" campaign?


4:05 AM on 10.13.2014

Fighting Games are Poorly Designed

Of all the genres of games I’ve ever played, fighting games hold the distinct “honor” of routinely being poorly designed games.

Every single game developer will tell you that some of the most basic rules to making a good game are that inputs are easy to do and the game can easily explain to the player how to play the game within the first hour or so of gameplay. Throughout my years of playing fighting games, I have found these rules continuously violated by nearly every single title released, be it Street Fighter, Blazblue or King of Fighters. Fighting games these days tend to be counterintuitive, have difficult inputs and are hard to learn, which is everything a developer doesn’t want a new player to experience. Yet somehow fighting games remain the only genre that manages to make every title like this.

For starters, this is the only genre that almost requires an entirely different controller to play (that also routinely costs $90+ for a good one). Granted, a player can try to use a standard pad to play, but there is a glaringly obvious disadvantage that a controller play has. A controller player must be able to press between four different buttons with the thumb, while an arcade stick player can utilize all five fingers to press everything they need. The player’s right thumb can be put through some brutal experiences trying to play certain characters, and things get awkward when the player is using a character like Juri from Street Fighter IV and they want to hold a charge of her Fuhajin while still utilizing her Medium Kick options. (If you don’t understand this, grab a controller and hold down A/X with your thumb. Now try pressing B/O while still holding down A/X.) Most of these challenges can be overcome with practice, but the amount of practice needed borders on the insane and most players would rather move on to a different game if the controls prove to be too much of a challenge to learn within the first hour of gameplay. And owning an arcade stick in itself isn't even a gateway to ease. A player must retrain their controller using skills to adapt to an arcade stick. And even if a player dedicates themselves to strctly controller use, the problem arises that arcade stick inputs are far more universal to fighting games, and the player will encounter times where a controller is not an option. Playing others at arcades, especially Japanese arcades (for those who it's relevant to), can force a player to play arcade stick only. These hard to master controls come in to effect when combos start getting introduced in the mix.

Most combos in fighting games these days are too hard to perform, and too damn long. I get it, it’s cool when you perform an “ULTRA COMBO!!!”, but outside of coolness factor, long and complicated combos are not what fighting games want. The simplest reason long combos are bad is because the player getting combed doesn’t want to sit there and watch their character get wailed on while they can’t do anything for 10+ seconds. Some games, like Marvel vs. Capcom 3, are so bad about this that the average wait time for a combo to finish can be 20-30 seconds. There are no real time games where this is acceptable as good design. The more important reason long combos are bad is that the majority of fighting games do not have universal combos. What I mean by this is that I can’t select Ryu and expect his standard, go to combo (the Bread and Butter, BnB for short) to be the same as Juri’s BnB. Juri’s BnB will also not be the same as Guile’s BnB. Because of this, the player cannot select one character and expect anything to transfer over to playing another character. This is like playing an FPS where every gun the player uses requires a different button input to fire and perform a melee attack. The simple act of wanting to switch characters is a chore in itself as the player will now have to spend many hours again in Training Mode practicing new inputs for another character. Considering how important it is for a player to be able to play at least two characters thanks to counter-picking, the time investment becomes ridiculous just to be able to play on the same level as other competent players. As combo focused as many fighting games have gotten now, it's often a requirement to know long combos in order to keep up with the damage output of the opponent. Learning the input for combos is hard enough, but input difficulty still manages to get worse.

I define the term “ease of input” as while the player is playing the game, at no point will they accidently input the wrong action because it’s far too similar to the input of another action. This is a rule fighting games ignore far too often. Performing Ryu’s Hadoken is Down, Down+Forward, Forward + Punch (named Quarter Circle Forward + Punch, QCF for short). Performing Ryu’s Super Hadoken is QCF x2, then Punch. Now Ryu’s Shoryuken is Forward, Down, Down+Forward + Punch. For a fighting game veteran, this is simple enough. For a new player, this is an input nightmare, and they will frequently get wrong inputs. An attempted Shoryuken may come out as a Hadoken and Super Hadoken may be accidently performed as well. This isn’t even the worst of it. Try to perform Atomic Buster (a 360 degree rotation on the controller + Punch) with Zangief and see if this is a reasonable expectation for a player to be able to do within the first few minutes of gameplay. Then let your brain explode when you attempt Final Atomic Buster (a 720 degree rotation + Punch). And all of this compounds exponentially when the player realizes that they’ll have a harder time doing the same moves depending on if their character is facing right or left. The player must then practice the same difficult inputs for hours facing right, then they must do the same again facing left! Ask yourself if you’d play Final Fantasy, Halo, The Last of Us or Zelda if you still had problems inputting simple actions after 10 hours of gameplay. This is not good control design at all. Making sure to never input the wrong move accidently takes hours of practice and in this generation of video games where controllers have so many buttons, there’s no reason that inputs should be so closely related to each other. And to make all of these matters worse, fighting games frequently possess no tutorials.

There has been an attempt in recent fighting games to include tutorials, but outside of the Skullgirls tutorial, these have been incredibly poor and unhelpful. In what fighting game has the genre’s most common terms like: Frame Trap, Safe, Punish, Ukemi, Command Throw, Frame Advantage and Meaty ever been explained? There are no glossaries in any fighting game to explain universal terms. To learn the intricacies of most fighting games requires the player to make an account on Shoryuken, Dustloop, Event Hubs or Smash Boards and spend hours reading a guide general overview guide for the fighting game they want to play, then they must spend more hours reading a guide for one character to learn how to play that single character competently. Again, what average player wants to spend hours learning the basics of one game?

Some of the diehard fighting game veterans may defend the ridiculously hard level of technical prowess required to play these games as “skill”, but let’s remember what the basics of fighting games are all about: Rock-paper-scissors gameplay, spacing, footsies, zoning and prediction. Where in any of these fundamentals is the ability to perform a 20 hit combo, have perfect input on a single frame or getting a 720 degree rotation input correct every time while facing left an absolute necessity? The original Street Fighter II made a name for itself and invented the genre on these simple fundamentals alone. I can play Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm, which has stupid easy inputs, yet still has all the essential fundamentals of a fighting game. The only skill that needs to be factored in during a fighting game is how well a player can perform the fundamentals.

So why is all of this important? Let’s go back in history and remember that after Street Fighter III, there was a massive drought in fighting games. The entire genre was slowly dying, and even though solid releases like Marvel vs. Capcom 2, Guilty Gear and Capcom vs. SNK came out, the genre was not attracting new players fast enough. It took Street Fighter IV to revive the genre to new players after a nearly decade long period of declining players. And let’s no pretend that companies weren’t aware that fighting games were dying. We can see evidence of the dying fan base in new mechanics added to fighting games now in an attempt to attract new players. Why do you think Comeback Mechanics like X-Factor, the Ultra Meter and Pandora Mode exist? Why does Persona 4 Arena have auto-combos with every character? Why did Marvel vs. Capcom 3 switch from four attack buttons to three? Why does Blazblue have a Beginner Mode and originally came packaged with a “How to Play” DVD initially? Why is Celica from Blazblue being described as easy to play and highly recommended for beginners as her DLC selling point? Game devs know that fighting games could just as easily die again if new blood isn’t attracted, and they’re trying to protect against it. Try as they might, longer tutorials and new comeback mechanics are not the solution. Fighting games need to get back to their Street Fighter II roots and simplify the inputs and execution. This is the only way to attract new players. There’s one game out there that proves this theory is true: Super Smash Bros.

It’s debatable if Smash Bros is really even a fighting game, but it’s similar enough to use as a comparison. Every move in Smash Bros is easy to perform. All moves are down with pressing the control in one direction and pressing A or B at the same time. Normal attacks and special attacks are clearly separated. A player will never perform Link’s Boomerang instead of his Forward Smash accidently. (I still have an issue with Tilts and Smash attacks being so similar, but it’s a minor gripe). Moves are universal to all characters. If the player want to perform an aerial recovery special, it’s Up + B. If the player performs an Up Aerial, it will send the opponent upward with every character. A Forward Smash will send the enemy flying forward of the direction the player’s character is facing. A Down Smash will sweep forward and back with (almost) every character. The only thing a player must learn between characters is the different specials each have and their different hit properties of the universal movesets. Smash Bros is by no means a perfectly designed fighting game, but it’s damn near closer to a perfect one than any other fighting game released. Really, the numbers says it all. Smash Bros is the bestselling “fighting game” and has no problems attracting new players. Sure, having Nintendo characters help, but let’s not forget that Street Fighter characters are just as legendary and notable as Nintendo characters. Nintendo characters alone couldn’t save Smash Bros if it was just as hard to play as Street Fighter IV or Marvel vs Capcom 3. Hell, Marvel and Capcom characters couldn’t save Marvel vs. Capcom 3 from dying and its cast even has (good) Hollywood films.

For the sake of the genre’s future, fighting games need to change. The fighting game community and even the game devs themselves need to start to understand that expecting a new player to go into Training Mode for 3-4 hours daily to practice the same inputs hundreds of times and reading online guides on how to play for hours is not acceptable. Final Fantasy XIII gets shit for taking over 20 hours to get to the real gameplay, and I’m not going to give fighting games a free pass anymore when they can take months, not hours, for the player to get to the real gameplay. A well designed game should never take the player months of practice just to play at a competent level. Make fighting games based on the fundamentals, not artificial skill barriers.


6:25 PM on 08.20.2014

The reality of changing the gaming industry

This is probably one of the few times I'll ever do an opinion piece on my blog, but I think that with "everything" going on lately, some reality checks are needed. I want to start this off by quoting the truest line in video game history from a game called Advance Wars. A wise Blue Moon CO once said:

"Money buys power!" - Colin

And that about sums up the solution to why most problems in the gaming industry don't get solved, whether it's yellow journalism, biased reviews, paid shills, gender diversity or any other hot issue.

When you take the time to reflect on the growth of the gaming industry in general, let's consider how gaming when from a male nerd hobby to an industry with profits that dwarf the the movie industry. Now ask yourself the hard question about this: Did we gamers really accomplish this? The answer is pretty much no. Our fan art, gaming articles, blogs, websites and fandom did not accomplish the goal of getting gaming mainstream. If we were actual able to accomplish this through sheer love and devotion to our hobby alone, then anime would be bigger than Jesus by now.

Here's small list of what gamers can thank for bringing their hobby into the mainstream:

Grand Theft Auto 3
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
Guitar Hero
World of Warcraft
Angry Birds
Clash of Clans
Mountain Dew

Everything on this list generated so much cash that the board rooms collectively orgasmed when the accountant brought in the balance sheet. Larger revenue attracted investors with deep pockets that could afford to advertise gaming on a grand scale, and pay for huge titles backed by market research into how best to distill the AAA formula for a single release. And as much as we complain about everything being a grey and brown COD clone or a GTA clone, it works every time.†

The greatest kick to your gendered bits is that we gamers also probably had little effect on stopping the "Violence in video games" attacks from a few years ago. You can thank Citizens United for that, not gamers. Always remember that the ESA is a Political Action Committee. When you have to thank Citizens United for a win, you know it's a Pyrrhic victory.

Something that gamers haven't quite comprehended yet is that becoming mainstream is a double-edged sword. Yes, being mainstream means that there are now more fans and more money going around, but the mistaken conclusion that gamers drew from this was that the increased amount of fans and money circulating in the industry would mean more diverse and creative titles could be funded and created. This has not be the case in the slightest. We really only have ourselves to blame for being so naive. Gamers could've looked towards their previous media brethren of music, TV and film, and it would've been clear as day that mainstream gaming would not spell good things for the more devoted fans. Just as Justin Beiber pollutes music, Duck Dynasty pollutes TV and Micheal Bay pollutes film, so too does Call of Duty pollute gaming. History has a funny way of repeating itself. In old days, when gaming was niche, a new console like the Sega Genesis was enough to rock the industry at its foundation. Now that gaming is mainstream, it takes billions of dollars to even dent the industry's impenetrable wall.

Now let's use the past lessons from other media in order to draw conclusions on the gaming industry's future.

Will indie developers usher in a new era of creativity and shift the market balance someday?

Not just no, but HELL no. First, let's examine one of the most successful indie developers right now, Notch. Let's check out his most recent profits:

$129 million for 2013 is pretty impressive, until you realize that Call of Duty and GTA make billions in profit respectively. Remember how money = voice? Well in this instance, Notch is a whisper and CoD and GTA are screaming from the top of a mountain with 1 million people all on megaphones. Plus, thinking that an indie dev who manages to reach CoD or GTA level profits will be the savior of the industry is naive. The movie industry called to remind us that George Lucas became what he used to fight against and Kevin Smith didn't get very far in the end. The indie music scene has also yet to produce a band that could change the face of their landscape. Sure, some people will carve out hefty wages, but it's highly unlikely that the indies will crush the titans.

Plus, comparing mainstream gaming companies to indie dev teams is a joke. The big corporations function like a well-oiled machine with each company working as a gear to power the overall behemoth into an unstoppable force. Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo are all buddies at the end of the day and Gamestop is their weird friend who has no decency or manners, but it too hilarious to not hang around. They conspire together to make season passes, exclusive pre-order bonuses, strip content to make DLC, force you to pay for online play, create pay-to-win games and damn near made the 8th console generation a DRM nightmare, but since they're all doing it, and they all stick to the same lie, people accept their crap as "normal", "added value" or a "bargain".

Meanwhile, the indie scene is quite fractured in comparison thanks to controversy, big egos, big mouths and cliques. A group of amateurs just isn't going to match a group who've had decades of education, training and experience in the same business, sales and marketing tactics. I've never seen Kaz Hirai, Satoru Iwata, Bobby Kotick or Bill Gates make an ass of themselves on social media, but I sure have seen it plenty of times with indie teams. At the end of the day, we've seen Sony and Microsoft CEOs sit down for dinner, but I doubt we'll ever see The Fullbright Company (Gone Home) and Lab Zero Games (Skullgirls) teaming up in the slightest, nor will we ever see any indie teams form corporations as powerful as Capcom, Square Enix, Rockstar, etc. and become a bigger, and more well oiled machine that the incumbents. And I'm never going to forget that it's indie developers who started the "Early Access" tripe and constantly flood Steam with garbage.

Will the gaming industry fix its problems with gender ratios in games?

Not until a game with mass female appeal hits an untapped gold mine. Basically, video games would need its version of Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey to convince the CEOs atop their piles of gold that catering to a female audience is worth the effort. AAA gaming is heavily skewed in favor of male purchasers, so naturally market researchers would rather spend cash to study an audience that it already knows how to appeal to vs. risking trying to appeal to what amounts to uncharted territory in their eyes. Sure, you can claim that Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite or Ellie from The Last of Us is some kind of progress, but in the big picture they amount to two drops of spring water in an ocean of piss.

Also, don't let yourself be fooled that kind gestures like female soldiers in the next Call of Duty is a breakthrough thanks to progressive change. How much does Activison-Blizzard need to pay Kotaku and Polygon to run an article about the new inclusion of female soldiers? Pretty much nothing given their usual topics of choice to report on. Now how much do you think Microsoft spent to get the Mountain Dewritos advertisement? Likely millions. I'm very cynical to AAA developers in general, so I'd take every "kind" gesture they do with a huge grain of salt. Women in gaming is a hot topic in gaming right now, and riding that bandwagon for free promotion is a smart business move. I'm going to admit that I'm a filthy degenerate, and I've owned stock in Activision-Blizzard for over 4 years and counting. My return on investment has been over 200% in the past 4 years (for the financially illiterate, imagine if your checking account's APR was 23% for 4 years straight), so my bank account has made me well aware that Bobby Kotick is like a fusion of Xanatos and Lex Luthor in every good and bad way. The female soldiers in CoD sounds like the Lexatos side in action. Meanwhile, every other huge gaming company's stock price chart has looked like a damn roller coaster over the past 5 years. Take it from a shareholder when I say that Kotick is an evil genius.

The important take away from all of that is those marketing goodwill gestures will disappear quick if they yield no extra cash, so don't view any of it as progress. We had progress when both Parasite Eve and Xenosaga featured females only on the front cover, had a female protagonist and sold over 1 million copies, not when Elizabeth was hidden on the back.

Will the gaming community's voice on X or Y ever be heard?

Going to lean heavily towards no. There are two conclusions I can draw on the gaming community based on what it says most of the time and what the sales reflect:

1.) The gaming community we often think of that hates on Call of Duty and its clones, DLC, Pay-to-win and the lack of more diverse and unique games is actually just a vocal minority in gaming now that happens to shout the loudest about gaming related news in comment sections, Youtube and Twitter compared to the average gamer these days.

1.) The gaming community is a bunch of hypocrites who shout and throw a shit fit about Call of Duty and its clones, DLC, Pay-to-win and the lack of more diverse and unique games, but when the cards are on the table, we belly up and do the exact opposite of what we say we want.

Both conclusions don't bode well for the gaming community as a whole. Either we're just a minority now, or we're all liars (Considering my Activison-Blizzard stock, file me under liar.) I really don't know which it is, but I do know that numbers don't lie. For all the talk of how terrible IGN and Kotaku is, gamers sure do lap up their bullshit en masse. Whether the answer is #1 or #2, both essentially mean that your voices over yellow journalism, paid shills, cronyism, DLC, pay-to-win, Call of Duty, etc. are never going to be heard because either the gaming community we think of doesn't have enough purchasing power to make a difference anymore, or gamers as a whole are constantly failing the grasp the concept of "vote with your wallet".

I'm sure by now anyone reading this has noticed the common solution to every problem I listed that I quoted in the beginning: "Money buys power!" If you want a voice in this industry, you need to either make a lot of money yourself, or cost someones else a lot of money. I promise you Bobby Kotick, Kaz Hirai and Satoru Iwata doesn't reads your blogs, Tumblrs, comments and watch your Youtube videos. Now, let me end my blog post with a link to the loudest and most powerful woman in gaming.   read

8:23 AM on 07.20.2014

Gameplay vs Story Showdown!

Gameplay vs. Story. Is it more important to have a game that plays great, or is it more important to have a great plot? This debate will likely never end, but I wanted to at least add my own personal opinion to the debate by examining the purpose of both a game and a story.

A story is made to convey a message to people for a specific purpose, be it entertainment or informative. There are many different methods to tell a story, be it written, oral or through pictures. Among these different mediums are various techniques an author can employ to create a good story, but when you take a step back and look at the big picture, all stories rely on the same thing to create their appeal:


Whether a story is a high flying action adventure or a tender romance, the key method to getting a viewer to enjoy the authorís story is to appeal to the emotions that the viewer wants to feel. Every medium appeals to emotion by creating a mood that fosters the emotions the author is trying to evoke. For example, an adventurous film like Indiana Jones needs to focus on action scenes with fighting, danger and suspense to create the emotion of excitement. A horror movie like Scream needs to take place primarily at night to maintain the emotion of fear.

Because creating the proper mood is the best way to appeal to the viewerís emotions, creating and maintaining a mood is the most important factor for a story. A proper mood can help the viewer get into the story so much that they ignore all logical flaws, plot holes, contradictions and other elements indicative of a poorly written or shallow plot. To prove this point, check out CinemaSins on Youtube and find some of your favorite films. Watch the video on it, and ask yourself how many of these flaws you completely missed because you were so in to the movie that you didnít notice or didnít care. For an even simpler example, letís examine Superman and Sailor Moon. Both characters have identities that are clearly visible and by all logic people should be able to figure out. Everyone who enjoys those series know this, but they donít care. The mood is good enough to allow the viewer to suspend disbelief and enjoy Superman and Sailor Moon for what it is.

Unlike stories, games do not need to focus on appeals to emotion in order to be enjoyable. A gameís most important role is to create a set of rules and establish a goal for the player to accomplish that is entertaining. The games that stand the test of time for the longest have always had game mechanics as their primary strength. Chess and Poker are the two best examples of this due to how long humans have continued to play these games throughout our history. Chess and Poker also have zero emotional appeal. Both Chess and Poker are not played for characters, setting and narrative. They represent a game in the purest and simplest form. Despite calling them video games, video games are still a game (Hell, they even have game in the word). The design principles and philosophy behind what makes Chess and Poker good games applies to video games as well. Itís a great error to think that video games must be treated as something completely separate from all other non-digital games. Stripped of all art, audio and writing, a video game is the same as Chess or Poker. Please keep the distinction of me talking about a video game and a game in mind. This is important to understanding the point, and I donít intend for them to represent each other interchangeably when I bring either term up.

Knowing now that gameplay creates a good game and mood creates a good story, the answer to the gameplay vs. story dilemma can start to unfold. Remember, a video game is a game. If we were to strip a video game of all story, a game would still exist. However, a video game stripped of gameplay is technically no longer a game. Without gameplay, a video game becomes a digital museum tour, and the original purpose of creating a video game is lost. A story that is stripped of a mood fails to evoke emotions and becomes a random photo gallery or a jumble of words. A game with bad gameplay is still a game and a story with bad mood is still a story, but both are less effective overall at what the intended purpose of being a game or story is.

A video game that has a bad story, but good gameplay can still succeed at being a good game. It fails at being a good story, but being a good story is not important for creating a good game and is ultimately not needed to make a good game. A video game that is well written, but has bad gameplay fails at being a good game. Now, even though the video game failed to be a good game, can it still succeed at being a good story? By the definition of being a good story, no, a video game with bad gameplay also fails to be a good story. How is this the case?

Remember, a good story is all about creating the right mood to appeal to emotions. The problem with bad gameplay in a video game is that the ability to create a mood is highly hindered or outright prevented. If the intended mood of a story is to be tragic and heartfelt, how can this be effectively maintained if the viewer must spend long periods of time being bored? If the intended mood of the story is love, how much love will the player be feeling if theyíre angry from dying for the 30[sup]th[/sup] time on the same part due to poor controls? Any mood and emotions invoked by a 10-20 minute cutscene are quickly snuffed out when the next 2-3 hours of play must be spent in a foul mood due to poor gameplay. It becomes incredibly difficult for the storyís viewer to grow attached to the characters and maintain an intended mood when the protagonist spends the majority of the experience pissing off the viewer.

For those who donít think a characterís experience in gameplay doesnít affect the playerís attachment to the character or the storyís mood, ask yourself this: Why is Elizabeth in Bioshock Infinite and Ellie in The Last of Us both invincible and ignored by enemies? Answering this question from a story perspective instead of a gameplay perspective, itís because the writers want the player to like Elizabeth and Ellie. As the player, how much would you have still enjoyed Elizabeth and Ellie if they could both die and were actively targeted by enemies? Would you still like Elizabeth if she was killable during the ghost battle? Would you still like Ellie if the Infected could hear her move and pulled their one hit kill shenanigans on her? How about I just say Ashley Graham and leave it at that

In the worst possible scenario, the story will fail because the player never finishes it. A story that no one ever experiences isnít really a story anymore. For a simple experiment, grab your favorite movie off your shelf and rent, borrow or purchase a video game you hate playing. Turn the movie on and start watching 15 minutes of it. Now pause the movie and start playing the video game you hate for 2 hours. After 2 hours of playing the video game, pause it and return to your favorite movie. Watch another 15 minutes of the movie, then return to playing the video game after that for another 2 hours. Repeat this process until you finally finish the movie. I hope to Yevon your favorite movie isnít Titanic, The Godfather or Lawrence of Arabia. This experiment is essentially what playing a game with bad gameplay but a good story is like. Now, try the reverse. Take a movie you hate the most, and a video game you love playing and repeat this experiment with the same time frames, 15 minutes of the movie and 2 hours of gameplay. By the way, this second experiment has an extra perk to it. At any point during those 15 minutes of watching the bad movie, you can stop watching at any time and play the game for another 2 hours. In fact, you can just not put the movie in at all and just keep playing. This is to simulate the ability to skip cutscenes. This scenario exemplifies why good gameplay but bad story can work, but bad gameplay with a well written story canít.

The gameplay segments in a video game with bad gameplay can be designed to be skipped or be short, but in that case, why not just make a film or book instead? The purpose of including interactivity to a story is to add an element to the mood that is not possible with only viewing. Viewing only allows a person to SEE what itís like to be a different person in a different setting, but interactivity allows the viewer to BE either themselves or a different person and experience what they or the person theyíre being would do. To ďbeĒ in a story is the ultimate way to create mood, and only an interactive medium like video games can use this powerful tool. If interactivity will only hinder the intended mood of the story, why bother including it?

I donít intend for this to be used as a valid excuse that video games can all be poorly written if itís fun, but rather that having good gameplay is an important cornerstone to having a good story in an interactive medium, and if something MUST be sacrificed, it should be story every time. A well written plot that fails to maintain its mood will fail to invoke emotion and will become a bad story by default. I have other things to say about games that have good gameplay and are well written, but the gameplay contradicts the mood that the story is trying to set, but that will be a topic for another time.   read

12:31 PM on 06.05.2014

How to fix turn based gaming's biggest problem

I donít like turned based games because theyíre slow and boring. You have to spend all that time waiting to do anything.

Iím sure every gamer at one point has heard someone say this. I specifically remember this being a constant criticism against turn based RPGs back in the PS1 and PS2 era. Iíve thought about why a player feels this way playing a turn based game for a while now, and the answer has finally come to me. The answer came while playing one of the oldest turn based games in history: chess.

While there are plenty of people who say they donít like chess due to the skill barrier for new players vs. the experienced and itís rather bland presentation in our day and age where games are flashy, technical eye candy, one criticism I donít hear is that chess requires too much sitting around and waiting. How does chess manage to avoid this accusation? It accomplishes this because chess has a high thought to action ratio, a term which I made up just now but will be useful in talking about turn based games. The thought to action ratio describes how long it takes for the player to think of their course of action, and how long it takes for the game to let them engage in that course of action. For a chess player, the amount of thought that must go in to every move is high, and only continues to increase as the game goes further. A chess player does not notice the amount of time they spend waiting for their move because theyíre too busy when itís not their turn thinking up what to do next and how to respond to the opponent.

Sometimes they think so hard they forget the rules.

Keeping the playerís thoughts going when waiting is the key to avoiding a player finding a game slow and boring. To understand this better, letís look at two game series, Final Fantasy and Fire Emblem, and compare doing it right and doing it wrong.

For those of you not familiar with it, Fire Emblem is a turn based tactical RPG. Fire Emblem has a high thought to action ratio. Generally the player will not be able to rush in head first in to a battle without first considering long and hard what to do.† Fire Emblem has a permanent death mechanic built in, so any KOed characters are not coming back to the player. Right here this already enforces the idea to the player ďThink before you act.Ē One wrong move will cost the player a unit for the entire game, so donít start mashing A to win. With the idea in the playerís head that they need to be careful, the game then teaches you how to play carefully. The player learns the weapon and magic triangle as basically being a rock, paper, scissors mechanic, and that this is key to winning without losing a character. The player must consider the triangle before they decide which unit will attack which enemy and where should they move their units.

For example, in Fire Emblem, a sword has an advantage against an ax. It would be a simple thought to think ďHave sword user attack ax userĒ but many situations will present themselves where that ax user has a buddy with a lance nearby. A lance beats a sword. Sure, the player could just have your sword user attack the ax user and call it a day, but now the playerís sword user is put at risk of dying when the enemy retaliates on their turn with the lance user. Because the game throws many different scenarios at you that will make blindly charging in a huge risk, the player must now look at enemy stats, placement and equipment before they even decide to move one unit.

Conveniently enough, the game also lets you view the stats, equipment and movement range of all enemies at all times on the map. And in a stroke of pure genius of design, all damage calculations can be performed by simple math. If an enemy has 10 Attack and the playerís unit has 5 Defense, then the playerís unit will take 5 damage from the attack. Keeping the stat totals only ranging in the tens digits allows for simple calculations that the player can perform on the fly without a calculator. The ability to do this opens the door for more thought to go in to a player planning out their attack strategy. But this still wasnít enough for Fire Emblem. The game also makes the player take into account terrain. Certain tiles can provide Evasion bonuses and extra Defense during combat. There may be two spots where you can attack the enemy from, but one spot is a forest that provides a 20% Evasion bonus and a +1 to Defense while another spot is a plains tile that offers no bonuses at all. Certain areas of the map may also create advantages for the player against superior numbers. For example, finding a choke point on the map that forces the enemy to only be able to attack with one unit at a time out of their ten provides the player a huge advantage. Now with all of this in mind, the player has a multitude of questions to answer every turn:

What is the enemyís equipment?
What is my equipment?
Where should I move this character?
How far can the enemy move?
How far can the enemy hit me from?
What risks are present if I move this character to that location?
How much damage can I deal?
How much damage can my enemy deal?
What will happen if I donít block off this passage from the enemy?

Should I have a seat over there?

For any one action the player chooses to perform, there will always be a high amount of thought that must go in to it every time. The idea that the player is sitting there waiting to do something is gone. Itís now filled with strategic planning. Final Fantasy is the complete opposite of this.

The Final Fantasy series has always been games that typically have a low thought to action ratio. I can boil down the strategy of any one random battle in Final Fantasy to a simple phrase: Attack until everything dies and heal when HP gets low. The boss fights are a similar affair, except itís changed to: Use your strongest attacks until everything dies and heal when HP gets low. The series has been fundamentally designed to have this problem.†

Hardest boss in the game defeated by 99% hurt and heal.

Final Fantasy presents the player with the illusion of choice in battle, but in reality most choices are not viable. For example, every Final Fantasy game has a plethora of status ailments the player can use, like Blind, Poison, Toad, Stone, Silence and more, but every fan knows that status ailments are useless to the player. Any enemy that is susceptible to an ailment is likely to be easy enough to kill so itís not worth bothering to inflict an ailment and any enemy that would warrant using an ailment against, like a boss, will be immune to ailments. The few Final Fantasy games that have buffs and debuffs also tend to have most of them be worthless. The buffs are never strong enough to justify using and the debuffs usually donít work on the enemies where deuffs are needed. If they do work, the debuffs are also not strong enough to justify using.

Final Fantasy games also design most dungeons to be an effort in conservation. The player is aware that a boss will be at the end of the dungeon, so they must preserve all Potions, Magic Points and Ethers. Due to the usual rarity of Ethers turning MP into a scarce commodity, the player will likely not use spells and special attacks for most of a dungeon. A save point is few and far between in dungeons, so a Tent isnít usually a viable option to handle having every character use every viable option for every fight. The player spends most of their fights only using Attack and very cheap costing spells. Having such a low amount of options gets boring rather fast. The only Final Fantasy that addresses the conservation issue is Final Fantasy XIII, but that game does so much of the thinking for you that itís rendered irrelevant.

Final Fantasyís low though to action ratio also got worse when the Active Time Battle was introduced to the series. Due to how few viable choices the player has in any one battle, not a lot of time is spent thinking on what to do next. However, the ATB system forces the player to wait even longer despite the fact that the player already has their entire battle strategy thought of for the turn. The game creates an annoying conflict with the player when theyíve figured out what to do in half a second, but the game forces them to wait 2-3 seconds to actually perform said action. This may seem small, but remember that this time adds up with every action of every battle. Itís essentially playing a game that has a built in input delay for no good reason.

Because of Final Fantasyís popularity, its game design choices have become a staple of the JRPG genre, so the problem of low thought to action ratio pops up a lot in the genre as a whole. Iíve seen various attempts to fix this problem, but not a lot of good ones. The solution to fixing the issue isnít to force all turn based games to become real time, nor is it to make a weird hybrid of the two that doesnít share the strengths both systems provide

Not going to point fingers at anybody...

This problem is fixed at the drawing board for the gameís combat system. Developers must design a combat system that forces the player to think long and hard about each action they perform. This is the whole reason why the turn based system exists. If real time gameplay is supposed to be a test of the playerís reflexes, then turn based gameplay is supposed to be a test of critical thinking. With that in mind, developers would do well to make sure their turn based games require a strategy beyond hurt and heal.   read

1:38 AM on 09.22.2013

Integrating Story and Game Mechanics

One of the best aspects of video game storytelling is that the player is allowed to interact with the story. This level of interactivity is what separates video games from the movie and literary genre in the narrative department. Despite video games having this powerful tool in its arsenal to engage a user in their story, itís rarely implemented effectively. This problem stems from the fact that too many video games are trying way too much to tell a story like a big budget Hollywood movie instead of like a game. I have many things I want to say about this topic, but for now Iím going to talk about getting the player invested in a gameís characters.

This is a whole other kind of investment.

Unlike Hollywood films, video games have displayed a unique strength in keeping the player immersed that movies canít do. A video game does not need to be the prettiest thing on the market in order to keep the player engaged. Engrossing gameplay allows the player to overlook many aspects that may be lacking in the graphical department. This huge strength is often ignored by developers in favor of the Hollywood approach. The effect of pretty graphics can be just as easily obtained from game mechanics and for a lot less cash to boot. To illustrate this example, letís look at Heavy Rain vs. Fire Emblem 7 (The one with Eliwood for the GBA.) with a little bit of Final Fantasy VII for example purposes.

Heavy Rain tries to take the Hollywood approach to get you to care about its cast of Madison, Norman, Scott and Ethan. The game looks pretty and ultra-realistic, and the player spends time viewing the life of each character while they control them. Itís all very emotional playing with Ethanís sons and dealing with a rapist with Madison. Unfortunately, the time spent controlling these characters amounts to Quick Time Events (QTE), which are very boring. A unique problem video games have is that it can ruin how invested the player is to a character depending on how much fun the player has controlling said character. Yes, there will be players out there who will look at the plot of Heavy Rain more than the gameplay, but the majority of players expect fun gameplay more than anything else. The fact that the best-selling series in video game history is held by Mario, followed by Pokťmon, shows that game players value good gameplay more than a deep story.

So little plot, yet so many feels.

When the player isnít having fun controlling Ethan or Madison, their investment in the character starts to decrease.† The playerís boredom and frustrations will be projected on to that character so now when that character comes to mind in their head, theyíre associated with negative feelings. Getting the player to associate negative feelings to your character is the kiss of death for your plot, and developers really need to take great care in ensuring this doesnít happen.

I know the Heavy Rain example might be hard to grasp for some, so Iím going to use a more well-known example to illustrate this point. Letís examine Final Fantasy VIIís Yuffie and Cait Sith. Both of these characters receive a lot of hate due to negative association the player develops for them that is unrelated to bad writing. Yuffie steals all of the playerís Materia at one point in the game and forces the player to be locked in a single town fighting enemies with no magic or skills. This segment is frustrating and unenjoyable to the player because they must now suffer from disempowerment despite how much fun they have becoming empowered through leveling. Because Yuffie was the character that forced you to play through a disempowerment segment of the game, the negative feelings you get from it are projected on to her when she returns to the team, and the player learns to hate her without any fault of the writer. Cait Sith is worthless in battle.

Don't confuse him with his older brother. He works hard.

His damage is poor and his Limit Breaks are just a huge gamble with little payoff. Once the player realizes how bad Cait Sith is in combat, they want nothing to do with him. His character then becomes associated with making the player weaker, so once again the character is hurt without any real fault of the writing.

Now on the other end of the spectrum, Fire Emblem 7 takes a very video game way of making the player invested in its characters. Almost all aspects of character investment are achieved through game mechanics. For starters, if a character dies, they do not come back. The player must complete the rest of the game without that character. This mechanic alone establishes the first layer of investment that the player has in the characters. Now every member of the playerís team becomes important because no one can replace them. The player does get characters who have the same class as others, but they will not have the same stats growths. Every character the player has also looks unique. They have a name and face associated with them rather than being a generic looking unit, so if they die, not only does the player lose that valuable asset to the combat, they also lose that character they think looks really cool, pretty or is funny. Even with the minimal plot involvement, characters like Guy, Erk and Lucius become important to the player emotionally. Lucius in particular falls into a unique role that enhances his value to the player.

When you see it...

He is the only Monk in the game (One out of two classes that can use Light magic for a majority of the game) and for a large portion of the game, he will be the only character that can use Light magic. The only other characters who can also do this are Serra (in the mid game after a class upgrade) and Athos (only for the last two battles in the game). Because of his role of being the sole Light magic user for a long time and being the easiest of them to level up, the player experiences a huge loss should he die in combat. He receives a large amount of investment due to this alone.

The second layer of investment comes when the player uses these characters in combat. Every time a character scores the player a lucky critical hit, takes down a tough enemy and helps them win a battle, the player associates positive feelings with that character. Now if they die, that joy the player receives from that character is gone, so they must take care of them. Anyone whoís played Fire Emblem can understand the feeling of starting a battle over because your favorite character died. A movie can never accomplish this kind of investment and no one ever rewinds a film in the middle of watching it just to have the joy of having a character stay alive.

Ethan's sons have nothing on this!

The third layer of investment comes in Supports. Supports serve as a way for the player to bond one character with another and learn more about both characters involved in the Support. Not only does the Support give the player more insight on the plot of the character, it also provides a stat boost in combat. This stat boost can often times be the deciding factor in a battle, so taking the time to do them becomes important to the player. The stat boost gained from a Support also serves to create a dual emotional investment for the player. For example, letís say the player likes Guy a lot but isnít as keen on Matthew. If the player decides to do a Support between Guy and Matthew, they will notice that Guy gives Matthew extra points in Strength that he desperately needs and Matthew gives Guy extra points in Critical Hit Chance, which is his bread and butter. The player is now positively reinforced to keep Matthew around Guy so that a character they like a lot becomes even better, and Matthew benefits from this positive reinforcement as well since now the player will want to keep him alive and in use. Itís no guarantee that the player will like Matthew more due to this, but it certainly helps Matthewís chances.

My scenario is silly, though. No one can hate him.

Despite Heavy Rain spending a fortune to create a beautiful environment with realistic looking characters, Fire Emblem 7 manages to trump it in character investment due to using the strengths of video games to its advantage rather than trying to use a movieís advantage. Keep in mind that the plot of a Fire Emblem game never amounts to more than ďEvil kingdom invades good kingdom! Also, kill a dragon or demon along the way.Ē Even with this weak plot, Fire Emblem has much more success with getting the player attached to its characters. Comparing the number of Fire Emblem fanfictions and fan art to the number of Heavy Rain fanfictions and fan art alone should show just how much Fire Emblemís approach works every time. One 32-bit graphical game with cheesy writing manages to accomplish more than a beautiful looking HD title with a serious script. Funny how that works out.

This is probably a fan fiction somewhere.

For any current developers or would-be developers out there, I would recommend taking this important lesson to heart before you think that you need cutting edge, ultra realistic HD graphics to tell your artistic vision. Save thousands or even millions of dollars by letting the game mechanics do the work for you.   read

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