Updated Games List

I added about 75 games to the list page. Additions below:

3D Dot Game Heroes (PS3)
Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures (PC, after many patches!)
Assassin’s Creed II (PS3)
*Batman: Arkham Asylum (PS3)
*Borderlands (PC)
Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin (DS)
Critter Crunch (PS3)
Darksiders (PS3)
Dawn of War 2 & Last Stand DLC (PC)
Dawn of War 2: Chaos Rising (PC)
de Blob (Wii)
Demon’s Souls (PS3)
Devil May Cry 4 (Xbox 360)
Din’s Curse (PC)
Disciples: Sacred Lands (PC)
Disciples II: Dark Prophecy (PC)
Dokapon Kingdom (Wii)
Dragon Ball Z: Burst Limit (Xbox 360)
Dragonica Online (PC)
Gratuitous Space Battles (PC)
Greed Corp (PS3)
Infamous (PS3)
Infinite Space (DS)
*King’s Bounty: Armored Princess (PC)
Machinarium (PC)
Mega Man Star Force 3 (DS)
Might & Magic : Clash of Heroes (DS)
Monster Hunter Tri (Wii)
Muramasa: The Demon Blade (Wii)
Nexus: The Jupiter Incident (PC)
Odin Sphere (PS2)
*Plants vs Zombies (PC)
Portal (PC)
*Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time (PS3)
Rocket Knight (PC)
Rock Band 2 (Xbox 360)
Sam & Max: Season One (PC)
Shadow Complex (Xbox 360)
Shadowgrounds (PC)
Shiren the Wanderer (Wii)
Sol Survivor (PC)
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (PC)
Star Wolves 3: Civil War (PC)
Too Human (Xbox 360… at least I liked it)
Toy Soldiers (Xbox 360)
*Trine (PS3)
Runners Up / Honorable Mention:

A Farewell to Dragons (PC)
Age of Empires: The Age of Kings (DS)
Castlevania: Lament of Innocence (PS2)
Ghost Master (PC)
Global Agenda (PC)
Lock’s Quest (DS)
Puzzle Kingdoms (PC)
Sacred 2: Fallen Angel (PC)
Space Trader (PC)
Soul Calibur IV (PS3)
Super Robot Taisen OG Saga: Endless Frontier (DS)
Unknown (need to play more):

Alan Wake (Xbox 360)
Bayonetta (Xbox 360)
Breath of Death VII (Xbox 360 Indie)
Brutal Legend (PS3)
Eternal Poison (PS2)
Gears of War 2 (Xbox 360)
God of War 3 (PS3)
Monster Lab (Wii)
Mushroom Men: The Spore Wars (Wii)
Phantom Brave (PS2)
Red Dead Redemption (PS3)
Star Ocean 4 (Xbox 360)
Super Mario Galaxy 2 (Wii)
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (PS3)

Expectations

When the subject of managing expectations arises, it’s usually related to community management. I haven’t heard a lot of discussion about managing expectations in the field of game design.

Just as the community team communicates to the players, so does every element of the design. Each system sends a message that triggers a reaction in the player. Elegantly interwoven systems are like a well-written book, where each chapter is a sum of the complete experience. Many common writing techniques have their corresponding elements in game design. For the purposes of this post, I’m just going to mention foreshadowing.

Accumulating events in a book provide the reader with a picture of where the story is going, and tells you what is going to happen in between the lines. Poorly constructed books turn foreshadowing into complete predictability. Masterfully written books use foreshadowing as a way to create that epiphany where everything comes together. In those cases, re-reading the book often provides new insights, and you can see the little hints that are threaded throughout the entire book.

Game systems are similar, but it’s usually a much different approach. Each system gives the player an impression about what is going to happen, and about what is possible within your game. This is one of the problems that cross-genre games face, as they must deal with the expectations of two different audiences. If the systems aren’t handled with care, it’s likely the product will end up creating misleading expectations. It’s what happens if you give the player a first person perspective but don’t allow them to aim their gun. Or if you create an RTS mechanic with army management but no way to control units. Each system creates a response, and that response has an expected followup. Games like Puzzle Quest and Deus Ex are great at least partially due to their ability to manage expectations. When this is handled masterfully, it’s completely invisible to the player. Managing expectations only becomes a problem when there’s a flaw in the system. Those flaws lead to players wanting to do things that aren’t possible, which leads to disappointment.

As an aside, this also works in our favor. As each system begets an expectation, it also serves as a tool that helps us build increasingly deep and complex games without creating insurmountable learning curves. It’s critical that these silent messages are intuitive, as we can’t rely solely on customers who have heard them from previous games.

The games that fail to manage player expectations create disappointment, but what about the games that exploit those expectations? They’re the ones that help create some of the most memorable experiences games provide. They deliver the joy of discovery. We can also utilize the players’ expectations as a way to reward specific behavior and improve their experiences. Even the most novice designers know that the interactions between systems are critical, and expectations are just another extension of how systems communicate with the player.

Imprints

Rarely, a game will leave a mental imprint on me that lasts well beyond when I finish the game. Most of these games are classics, but there’s not always a perfect correlation between the quality of a game, whether it’ll leave an imprint and how strong that imprint becomes. I’m not going to delve deeply into the subject, but I wanted to briefly pose the question: what makes a game leave an imprint?

I’ll spare you all the long-winded monologue and instead I’ll focus on one highly subjective point: it’s in the music. The games that leave the strongest impressions on me almost always have a great soundtrack.  Shadow Complex was probably a technically better game than Trine, but the latter is the one that left an imprint. I burned through both games, but I continue to play Trine through the music – the soundtrack contains the essence of the game. I can listen to it after I’ve played the game and I can observe how my memories are mapped to the individual tracks. Each song is linked to different experiences.

Normally, my memories are fleeting – they’re attached to any of dozens of simultaneously moving thoughts and they slip through my mind before I can get a solid grip on a particular thread. But the sounds of the game bring clarity to even the smallest details. Most of the games that have made an impression on me fit this bill, ranging from classics like Betrayal at Krondor and Xenogears to modern recent obscurities like Spirit Engine 2. In some cases, this extends beyond the soundtrack and to the effects and ambient noise in games like X-Com.

I have yet to play an MMO that evokes the same reaction, but the genre doesn’t give music the same role for obvious reasons. I can’t help but wonder what kind of MMO will leave an imprint on me.

Players are Smart

I often hear that players are stupid. It even comes from the players themselves as often as not, typically referring to another segment of the population. They do stupid things, make stupid mistakes. That previous sentence is true, but it also contributes to a horrible misconception.

Players are only as stupid as any random group of people. Any group is going to have stupid people, average people and smart people. Even if you argue that people in general are stupid, there are still going to be smart ones in the group… especially if you consider the sample size. On an individual level, there are stupid players. As an audience, players are not stupid. Even the most intelligent people do stupid things, fail to read instructions and generally bungle simple tasks. However, doing stupid things is a far cry from being stupid.

The problem with saying that players are stupid is that it can become a justification to do things wrong. And when that happens, players figure it out and suddenly you’re wrong instead of them.

  • If you lie to them, they’ll figure it out.
  • If you hide something from them, they’ll find it.
  • If you leave something out, they’ll know it’s missing.
  • If you try to keep them from doing something by only making it seem impossible, they’ll find a way to make it possible.
  • If you try to keep them from beating your game too fast, they’ll still tear through it in no time.
  • If you try to patronize them, they’ll see through it.
  • If you try to ignore an issue, they’ll know it’s a hot button.
  • If you try to fudge the math, they’ll find where the formula breaks.

Players are smart. Treat them like they’re smart, and then you’ll see that they’re industrious too. Give them a problem and the opportunity and they’ll solve it. Keep them loyal and they’ll build things you never had the time to create.

Combat Flow

It’s time for my first substantial post in a while.

Overview

When it comes to combat systems, one of the common problems in MMOs is that they don’t have a strong flow. Let me explain some terms I’m going to use here:

  1. Combat Encounter: This is the entirety of a fight, which may be anywhere from a single to a dozen monsters.
  2. Combat Flow: This is the natural progression that happens in the course of a fight.
  3. Combat Segment: This is a sub-object within the encounter. One encounter may consist of multiple segments, each of which has their own combat flow.  For example, each monster may be a segment.

Simple enough. In most non-MMO combat-focused games, the duration of the flow is nearly identical to the duration of the encounter. The actions I take trickle down, changing how I will proceed in the near future. This tends to be true no matter how many opponents you are facing.

Example Scenarios

Let’s say I’m playing a fighting game with a single opponent. My actions at any given second are determined by what’s happening in the fight. If I break my opponent’s guard, I’m going to press an attack… but perhaps more cautiously if he pulled off a good combo breaker last time. I’m going to change my approach depending on the relative health of the my opponent and my character. I’m going to watch how my opponent attacks and look for holes to exploit. Even if we disengage briefly, the flow still persists. That disengagement period is more likely to happen due to previous events, and our next actions are influenced by the disengage.

Next, let’s say we have an action-RPG with an emphasis on the action (Ninja Gaiden or God of War more than Diablo). In these, most combat encounters consist of multiple opponents. When this is true, positioning naturally becomes a critical flow element. You move through the network of enemies, with your relative positions increasing and decreasing the strategic weight of different options. The other enemies alter my behavior, and the fight proceeds as a unit. These games naturally benefit from a matrix of positioning, time and vulnerabilities. Note that with the except of a few uber attacks, these games tend to have no use restrictions on attacks. You can do that super powerful attack over and over if you can pull it off, but there’s a good chance it’s not appropriate, it will leave you vulnerable and it just doesn’t fit in your chains. On that note, I ought to post about combat cancels in the future.

This doesn’t just apply to action games. Magic the Gathering is a great example of a game with a strong combat flow, if not always because of the same principles. Even RTS games like Total War follow this loose guideline.

How does the MMORPG fit in?

Now we get to the MMORPG. Say that the MMORPG has a 60 second encounter and the action RPG has a 30 second encounter.  You fight 3 enemies in the MMORPG and 5 in the action RPG. With most of the MMORPGs, the duration of the flow = encounter duration / # of enemies. This is an over-generalization, but it makes it easier to make my point. If there are three guys, I’m going to kill one and then do exactly the same thing to the next guy and I will repeat it for each opponent. Depending on the game, my overall approach to the fight may change, but for this we’ll assume the standard encounter is 3 opponents.

With the above scenario, the generic MMORPG encounter is made up of three 20 second segments. Each of these segments has the same flow, making the repetition cycle 20 seconds. With the action RPG, the the duration of the flow = the duration of the encounter. This gives it a 30 second repetition cycle. Even though the overall encounter is shorter, the repetition cycle is longer. That’s a good thing.

Note that while time is a critical element here, combat flow is not about the total length of the fight. Whether your combat takes 30 seconds or 5 minutes, you generally want to make the flow equal the encounter length. Special circumstances can be exceptions, but as a rule of thumb you want to extend the combat flow to be equal to or close to the length of the encounter. You definitely don’t want the combat segments = # of opponents. Although you can measure the repetition cycle, that number alone isn’t necessarily useful. An example with two 30 second repetition cycle scenarios: If you make me kill five guys at 30 seconds each (2.5 minute encounter) and my approach to each is identical, then it’s actually going to feel more repetitive than a combat that pits me three guys at 10 seconds each in an encounter with only one segment.

When an MMORPG reduces the time it takes to defeat a single opponent, it becomes easier to see this problem in the combat system. Players won’t describe it this way, but it can be the cause for many symptoms related to the combat system. Most MMORPGs remove the key elements that contribute to combat flow. There are often technical reasons behind the removal. For the sake of argument, let’s assume  it’s impossible / unfeasible / a bad idea / whatever to make an MMORPG that has a combat system on par with an action game, just because it’s close to what most MMORPGs offer. If this is the case, it means the game systems need to compensate for the inherent loss of flow-strengthening elements.

Broken Flow

In MMOs where you fight multiple enemies, it’s common for the resource pool to be the main element that carries over from one enemy to the next. In contrast, nearly all action games use time and vulnerability as their restriction instead of a resource pool. All of your attacks are available, but they are locked in chains. Attacks have varying execution times. This is not as simple as an activation time. The following components are usually present:

  1. Pre-hit frames: The time between clicking the attack and damage.
  2. Hit frames: The time when the attack is hitting.
  3. Post-hit frames: Time after the attack when you can’t act.

Then, each attack has other considerations. Does it stutter the enemy? Can I get the most benefit out of my attack at this range? Will this leave me vulnerable with the current positioning of the enemies? Can I cancel this attack if I need to react to an unexpected threat? Attack use is calculated and mana pools tend to be for encounter-winning abilities. Additionally, the positioning tends to be a binary switch for whether powers can be used in an MMO, while it impacts the strategic options in action games.

Now let’s look at the MMO resource pool (usually mana). What does it accomplish? It’s primarily a disabler, not an enabler. With standard implementations, the resource pool simply prevents actions that you might want to take. In contrast, time and vulnerability based systems adjust how effective action are in each situation. You may always be able to use a big charge up attack, but chances are it’ll be one of your less frequently used abilities. With a resource pool, you can choose to either be effective now or effective later. There’s a consideration for efficiency over the course of an encounter, which contributes some flow. It’s not as strong as the flow that comes from time, vulnerability and position-based combat.

Note this doesn’t mean you can’t use resource pools, but it does mean that it will not provide the combat flow you want in the combat system. So, for the tally, MMORPGs lose flow in the following areas:

  1. Actions rarely vary in effectiveness in a non-formulaic way.
  2. Actions are resource-limited, not effectiveness-dependent.
  3. Actions cannot be changed once started.
  4. Actions are binary on/off due to position, as opposed to adjusting the effectiveness based on position.
  5. Actions rarely carry over from one opponent to the next.
  6. Actions rarely impact the enemy in a way that strategically alters my potential actions.

This post is full of gross over-generalizations and there are with exceptions, but I hope those don’t distract people from the point I’m trying to make. The traditional MMORPG’s combat flow suffers in numerous areas, and yet we expect people to use that combat system much longer than they would in other games. We need the flow in our games to be consistently close to the encounter duration so that we don’t have as many repetition cycles, especially in games with fast combat.

Sanctity

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything, but I wanted to pop in to say something that I’ve brought up in other locales: There is no such thing as the sanctity of game design.

There is nothing that is not subject to reevaluation or change. No design (or designer) is  infallible. While it’s neither feasible nor possible to simply change anything and everything, it’s important to be willing to take that sacred cow out back and butcher it for the good of the game.

In other news, I took a combat design position working at Star Trek Online for Cryptic Studios a few months ago. The weather down here is unbearable and I miss the rain, but everything else is cool. Maybe I’ll dig up some of the half-written posts I have laying around with substantial content, but don’t I fear laziness will win the day.

Puzzle Mania

I devoured the original Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords. It’s a great game, and it’s rather well known for being challenging. I didn’t find it terribly difficult, but I did need to think to make my way through the game. Part of that may be because I played a Wizard, and I found they were quite strong. Challenge of the Warlords got a lot of buzz through word of mouth and good publicity.

Puzzle Quest: Galactrix’s biggest accomplishment is the way it managed to bounce me right out of the game despite being a Sci Fi hungry Puzzle Quest addict. I was forcing myself to play, but I never found the game I hoped was buried underneath the endless luck-driven timed puzzles.

Then Puzzle Kingdoms showed up. It completely slipped under my radar – I only heard about the game a few days before it shipped. That was unusual, because Galactrix got quite a bit of hype. Infinite Interactive’s site doesn’t even list the game as released, and I haven’t seen a single review despite it releasing two weeks ago. And yet it’s a much better game than Galactrix. I’ll describe the basic mechanics since it’s not as well known.

As another color-matching game, Puzzle Kingdoms relies on acquiring mana (power) to charge units in your army so they can attack the enemy army. Armies consist of four units. Each unit requires a specific kind of mana, and the first unit of that in your army receives that mana. Anytime you acquire mana that doesn’t go to one of your units, it goes into the hero’s generic mana pool.

Initially, attacking is strategic. If you attack with multiple units at once, they all gain a damage bonus. Sometimes you want to hold off to give yourself a little bit more damage to finish off the enemy in fewer attacks, but you make yourself vulnerable to the enemy killing off your charged units. As you level up, your hero stats increase the attack and defense of your units. The number scale is much smaller than Puzzle Quest, so the +1-3 damage you get from combos should always be useful.

Unfortunately, Puzzle Kingdoms bears too much resemblance to an area where the original Puzzle Quest was weak: item balance. About midway through Puzzle Quest, I found a few items that gave my character insane amounts of power. There were still some difficult fights, but I’d have to self handicap to make the average fight mildly interesting. Puzzle Kingdoms has the same problem, but it is much more egregious in its flaw. After an intriguing early experience,  I found two items early that basically ensure I win any fight after a couple rounds. Every fight is trivial. It’s pretty common to kill the entire army of a boss in a single attack. Enemies are so un-threatening that I routinely give them damage block combines just so I can match the kind of mana I want. There are a few factors that cause this:

1) Items. Early in the game, I found an item that increases my unit hitpoints by 3. Suddenly, even cheap 1 hitpoint glass cannons became effective front line units. Shortly after that, I found a weapon that gives me +2 red power everytime I combine red blocks. Combine that with a goblin (and later a wolfrider) who only needs 2 red power to attack, and I get 1.5 attacks for combining a simple block. Without that, you need 2-5 combines to charge a unit. Right now I use 3 wolf riders, and I charge all three by making two basic red combines (or a single 4 combine charges two instantly).

2) Heroes & Scaling. Your hero quickly gains power, but past the first few zones, the enemies you fight don’t scale up for a very long time. I’ve conquered a good 12 kingdoms, about half the game from what I can tell, and the creaures are rarely harder than the ones I saw by the second or third kingdom. Meanwhile, my hero increases the attack/defense of my units by around 5/3. That addition is stronger than most of the creatures I fight. And I outnumber them. And I have spells. And I have items. My cheap wolf riders have enough base damage (10) to one-hit everything I’ve fought short of some dragons, and they attack almost instantly. Meanwhile, I keep fighting creatures that have 2-4 hitpoints and insufficient damage to kill my “frail” wolfriders.

I’ve thought about self handicapping to play the game, but even when I tried that it wasn’t a challenge with an unequipped level 1 hero and basic units. My own skill has increased disproportionately to the difficulty curve in the game, which means there’s no real way for me to get a challenge unless I field less than four units. The heroes level up fast enough that I quickly gain strength on new characters and once again outmatch the enemy units.

I’m curious whether it’s just my experiences or if the game’s difficulty curve is ridiculously, horribly broken. It’s disappointing because I like the game so much otherwise.

Creative Constraints

As Login ’09 approaches, most of my weekend time is going to be dedicated to getting my lecture on balance constraints together. This morning, I was gradually converting my many pages of notes into a lecture. At the same time, I discovered Warren Spector’s blog and started reading it beginning with the oldest posts.

I was working on a note about creativity flourishing within constraints, and how I want to be given a box so that I can find a way to break out. Coincidentally, this happened at the same time as I was reading Spector’s post on Clean Slate vs Reactive creativity, and I realized he had written a much more elegant and thorough take on the subject. The post is a year and a half old, but it’s definitely worth a read if you haven’t seen it before. I also recommend reading the two posts that lead up to that one.

Controls: Abusing the Player

This is the first in a short series of related posts on the subject of game controls.

Every so often, I encounter a game that’s incredibly difficult for all the wrong reasons. While those reasons vary, controls is the one I’m going to talk about today. Gothic 2 is going to be my punching bag today, because it holds a unique place in this aspect. I’ve earned a reputation for being quite good at games and I like a challenge, but Gothic 2‘s newbie experience repeatedly beat me down. My arch nemesis, the Load Game screen, greeted me two out of every three times I ran into a rat, wolf, goblin or bandit, always imploring me to give it another shot. And so I did.

But why did I keep dying? It wasn’t just because the combat was challenging. The learning curve was harsh, but that was something I could overcome. My deaths were often the result of arcane controls that prevented me from performing the desired actions. Movement and attacking was difficult and unresponsive in general. It’s been a long time so it’s hard for me to remember all of the details about combat. Simple functions – like enabling quicksaves and binding a key to “use healing potion” – were features that could only be enabled through INI files. Why are those options locked away in an INI file? Is there a reason that I shouldn’t be saving my game, and therefore it should be inconvenient to do so?

The other elements of Gothic 2 were appealing enough that I kept going at it even as I was frustrated, and it might be the only time I’ve had to cheat to make it through a game. That actually came later, because I eventually got tired of dealing with the controls but I still wanted to finish the game. Now I’m going to go out on a limb and make a controversial declaration: difficulty should come from gameplay, not controls. Despite that, I’m indebted to Gothic 2‘s punishing difficulty, and I’m really only using it here to setup the points I really want to discuss. I’ll explain why in the next post.