Tragedy, that's when I cut my finger. Comedy, that's when you walk into an open sewer and die.
ARTICLE: 1/23/17 - Dragon Quest VIII Receives Redemption on 3DS
|2016 was a busy year, and I had little time to do much of anything besides work. But that's neither here nor there; let's talk about video games.|
|You may recall that, some years ago, I posted a very angry rant/article about Dragon Quest VIII on the PS2. The gist of it was that the game is absurdly difficult due to its over-reliance on randomization to substitute for good game design. And now that the game is on 3DS... it still is over-reliant on the randomizer. That problem was not fixed one whit, and remains an amazing annoyance. What has been fixed, however, is the time it takes to get back to whatever it was that cheaped you out, as well as how often you have to actually deal with cheap-outs.|
|DQ8 3DS adds the much needed feature of quick-saving. Indeed, it has multiple means of allowing you to save on the fly, even to a main save file. This means that you can drop a quicksave right in front of any given hard boss fight and not have to worry about re-traversing half the world map and an entire dungeon to retry the fight if you get cheap-shotted. This addition alone makes the game infinitely more tolerable, but it gets better still.|
|Much like DQ7 3DS, DQ8 3DS also makes all encounters on the world map visible. This is a huge boon, as it means you can avoid battles quite easily, making exporation actually fun and rewarding instead of being a crapshoot that could easily get you killed. If an enemy starts charging you down and you don't want to fight it, all you have to do is hop into the menu and check the battle records to reset nearby encounters and thus evade the fight entirely. Effectively you only ever need battle when you want to battle.|
|Some might argue that these additions and changes make the game too easy now. I would argue that these people fail to grasp that the primary difficulty is very much still intact. The only aspect that's changed is the control the player has over mitigating said difficulty as they see fit. Instead of an endless series of weighted coin tosses that will inevitably turn against the player eventually, there is now the opportunity to minimize how many coin flips you're forced to deal with and thus up your odds of success at any given endeavor considerably. The game is far from perfect still, and remains a randomizer-abusing bastard, but at least it no longer forces you to suffer the randomizer's abuse at every step.|
|So yes, quick-saving and visible avoidable encounters are not a true solution. They are a band-aid over a gaping wound, in fact. But they do actually have a positive impact on DQ8's playability. And for that I am very thankful indeed.|
ARTICLE: 5/14/16 - Game Design 103
|Yep, I'm back. 2015 was a weird year for me, and 2016 is shaping up to be insanely busy, but not so busy that I can't take some time to provide some more pearls of game design wisdom. Let's begin the lesson, shall we?|
|41. Get difficulty scaling right. Tasks should be simpler and easier early on, gradually building up in challenge and complexity as time goes on. Too much of either too soon dissuades your players from experimenting with your system.|
|42. Don't punish the player for things they have no control over. If you must put in a system that is random instead of robust, be sure that the player can deal with it without feeling like the game is "against" them.|
|43. Avoid excessive breadth-over-depth in your designs. A small number of very intricate and well-made choices are far better than a smorgasboard of meaningless ones.|
|44. There is no "right" way to do a given task in your game, only a goal that the player is working towards. This philosophy will help you avoid my-way-or-the-highway game design.|
|45. No system is so good that it cannot be destroyed by one bad design decision. Iron out the flaws in your game's design, no matter how "minor" they appear.|
|46. Don't promise what you can't deliver. This goes hand-in-hand with staying in scope, but is far more important, as your players will remember what you say and will be mad if you don't give them what you told them you were going to give them.|
|47. Side content is not an excuse to get lazy. Even if it isn't the main focus, make any and all components you add at least good enough to be worthy of the player's attention.|
|48. Proofread your text, look at how it renders in-game, and adjust accordingly. While it may seem a minor point, typographical errors do more damage to the apparent polish of the majority of independently released games than almost anything else.|
|49. Don't hate or discourage modders. They are the most creative and helpful people who play your game, and will help you make your game appeal to an even broader audience.|
|50. Don't steal from modders. If you find a mod has fixed a number of major issues with your game or expanded it in an appealing way, develop your own equivalent or pay them to use their fixes as a base for a future patch.|
|51. Focus evenly on rising challenge and complexity, introducing more elements to gameplay as the player masters earlier ones. A game with too much challenge and too little complexity becomes frustrating, while a game with too much complexity and too little challenge becomes a chore.|
|52. Know your target audience and appeal to them. If you spend too much time trying to bring in everybody, you will likely get nobody to actually play your game.|
|53. Don't back yourself into a niche audience with your design decisions. While your target audience is important, if they're too specific, you will lose out on the broader audience that would otherwise love your game if not for the decisions made to appeal specifically to that niche.|
|54. Show, don't tell. The player will learn far more from doing something than from being told how to do something. The less reading they have to do to "get it", the better.|
|55. Story depth should always be optional. Though there is a niche that loves plot, most play video games for the actual "game" aspect.|
|56. Forcing the player to make difficult decisions is fine, as long as there is some form of pay-off for making those decisions. Being forced to choose between only unappealing results does not make for compelling gameplay.|
|57. "Wrong" choices are pointless, as no player will actually choose the "wrong" one save to see what it does before going back and making the "right" choice. Always give the player an incentive for any choice they can make, or they will only ever make the "right" choice.|
|58. Don't be a jerk to your players. This comes in many flavors, but the same general rule applies that when you do something specifically to piss off your player, you're going to succeed in a way you probably weren't intending to. Word will get around that your game is masochistic, and your potential userbase will shrink drastically.|
|59. Don't patronize your players. Despite what you may have come to think, most people are pretty clever, and can figure things out on their own. They don't need you to hold their hand when they don't solve something right away. A gentle nudge in the right direction is far more effective than telling them how to succeed or outright just doing it for them.|
|60. Forever and always, no matter the situation or context, you do not take control away from the player. Your game ceases to be a game when the player is not actually in control of anything.|
|And with that, we have completed the first set of lessons on game development! Go forth and make awesome games. Oh, and an addenum to the previous article: KSP did in fact fix some of the issues it had with excessive pricing and poor contract payouts. And then added punishments for rejecting randomly-generated contracts, thus turning the system thoroughly against you in a whole new way. Game development is hard, even for those who get it mostly right! That should definitely be the biggest take-away from these lessons, if nothing else.|
ARTICLE: 12/16/14 - You Do Not Take Control Away From the Player: An Example
|Anyone familiar with my philosophy on game design is well aware that my golden rule of game design is the leading title of this article: you do not take control away from the player. Ever. No exceptions. If the player is not in control at a fundamental level, it is no longer a game. If you lock away their ability to control the game behind unreasonable or unintuitive limiters that cannot be removed or controlled in a sensible fashion, you have failed to follow this golden rule of game design just as badly as if you'd not given the player control at all.|
|This is not an easy rule to follow. Especially not for the developer, because the developer has a twofold problem: the Curse of Knowledge AND the Curse of Experience. The former is that they already know everything necessary to succeed at their game with the minimal level of input, as well as all of the ideal paths and options. The latter is that they are better at their game than anyone, since they have played it far more than anyone on a level that nobody else can: they literally built the game. These twin curses blind developers to the challenge they present to their users, often in a manner that makes it almost impossible for them to truly see just how far off-target they are until they allow unbiased and uninformed players to test their game. Worse still, the problem often comes down to numbers: they could easily be fixed just by tweaking a few values to be half as large, twice as large, and so forth.|
|One game that I personally never expected to violate this rule is Kerbal Space Program. To date, SQUAD has shown an unerring level of attention to their userbase's actual capabilities and interests that rivals that of Nintendo. But with the release of 0.90, they slipped very shockingly in this understanding with the way that they set up building upgrades. The system was clearly in development for a long time, and there was a last-minute change to it that cut out an entire upgrade tier, but that does not change the fact that the upgrade system in 0.90 is fundamentally and inconcievably broken as it stands now. Most of it comes down to two simple errors: the first being the failure to appreciate the need for player-adjustable pricing independent of other variables, and the second being a failure to understand the practical experience and tolerance levels of their primary userbase.|
|Building upgrades in 0.90 are mandatory for performing any sort of complex or interesting missions. The first tier of buildings effectively locks you down to just doing missions on and around Kerbin, the Earth equivalent of the game. And due to the excessive pricing scheme for upgrades, you're locked down to Kerbin for an extraordinarily long time as a result. As of this article's writing, on the base difficulty setting it costs around 1,000,000 Funds to upgrade the Space Center to a level where attempting a Mun mission of any sort of scale would be feasible. The typical contract payouts on Normal at that point range from 500 to 50,000 Funds in payouts. Basic math tells you that you would have to take 20 of the best-paying contracts just to upgrade your Space Center to a level where you could do anything interesting.|
|This, put simply, is horrible. Those high-value contracts tend to take at least 15 minutes to complete (some of them can take over an hour easily), meaning that a newcomer to the game is looking at the prospect of repeating the exact same sorts of missions for many hours on end just to get the option to play the game they paid for. It's not that difficult to fix, either: drop the prices by a factor of 5. If getting the Space Center up to a Mun-ready level only cost 200,000 Funds, the tedium level would drop astronomically, and the whole effort would feel far less like a grind. At one point, this was where the prices were set. The preview trailers show that the initial pricing scheme originally in place would have allowed for upgrades at this sensible rate. For whatever reason, however, the prices got boosted.|
|There are a few other issues with the upgrade system as it stands (including the rather absurd "fixed action groups" limitation for the tier-2 Vehicle Assembly Building and Spaceplane Hangar, which quite blatantly take control away from the player; and the fact that building upgrade prices are unintuitively tied to contract failure fund penalties instead of their own independent difficulty slider), but the big problem here is the poor design decision to quintuple building upgrade prices at the 11th hour. As with so many misguided attempts to balance gameplay difficulty, it merely resulted in worsening the experience at the player's expense. It is my sincere hope that I can append this article at some point with a notice that KSP has in fact been updated to fix this glaring and fun-killing issue.|
RANT: 10/13/14 - A Tale of Two RPGs: Xenoblade Chronicles and Final Fantasy XIII
|I recently acquired Final Fantasy XIII for the first time when it was ported to PC. For years I've heard much negative response to the game, yet I had also heard a fair bit of praise for its combat system. Intrigued, I decided to find out for myself just what sort of game FF13 really is. So I dropped the $14.50 and started playing it.|
|16 hours in, I decided I'd had enough for now. During those 16 hours, I saw what is rightfully called the worst of FF13: it's absolutely linear with no backtrackng allowed, forces your party into set configurations that are generally far from optimal, has a plot that mostly amounts to "even your party has no idea what to do next", and just generally feels like the whole thing was hastily assembled to meet a deadline. Given that FF13 missed several deadlines and went horribly over-budget as it is, that's really not a sign of good things to come.|
|Despondent, I decided to load up one of my favorite JRPGs of all time that coincidentally came out at about the same time as FF13: Xenoblade Chronicles. Right away the difference in visual quality struck me: FF13 is undeniably much prettier in the small visual details between the two games. In fact, Xenoblade looks like a slightly-upscaled PS2 title by comparison. Sixty minutes later, it became apparent that looks really are only skin-deep, as in that hour I'd had more fun with Xenoblade than I had in the first 16 hours of FF13 combined.|
|Right from the get-go, it's obvious how different these two games approach the same basic problem: how you engage the player and keep them playing your game. FF13's method is purely spectacle aesthetic: it presents you with literally 15 minutes of non-interactive cutscene that looks very action-packed, but ultimately doesn't ask anything of the player save that they sit and watch patiently. It then throws you into a pitched boss fight that you could only lose if you tried, followed by the same fight again for good measure, and then resumes showing you FMVs until it finally drops you off at the first area of the game at around the 30-minute mark. From here, you have only one real option: walk forward, battling enemies, until the next plot trigger.|
|Xenoblade seems to be on a similar bent initially. It begins by showcasing two titans battling each other with a narrative explanation that establishes the world mythos, followed by a proper many-against-many battle sequence, but it immediately throws you into combat after this at around the 6-minute mark. There are a few easy fights that acclimate you to the combat system, and then the story sequence concludes the battle there. And then it skips ahead a year later and introduces us to the actual main character of the game and his best friend. The next 5 to 15 minutes of Xenoblade are spent going down a linear path and beating up monsters, how long it takes dependent on how willing you are to engage the enemies. At the end of the path, you're deposited at the gates of a town with free access to the entire Colony 9 area and multiple sidequests open, or you can keep going with the plot.|
|FF13 keeps you going down the linear path for quite some time. In fact, despite the frequent switches in focus between three different groups, the first two hours of FF13 consist solely of "walk from point A to point B", and that almost never varies from being a straight line. Worse, there is zero incentive to any of the fights you get into along the way: enemies drop nothing, give no experience, and are basically there to pad the experience out. The first two hours of FF13 are purely padding, in short, until you reach the point where you can start developing your characters.|
|With Xenoblade, where you go from the entrance of Colony 9 is entirely at your discretion. Want to explore the outlying regions, maybe fight some enemies, collect some goodies, or do some sidequests? That's entirely an option. Want to improve your battle abilities and expand their potential with Arts manuals? You can totally do that too. The plot will patiently wait for you to get your fill of its world, and once you do get around to continuing with it, it will always let you go and free-roam again to your heart's content after every story sequence. As you follow the story, you open up new areas to explore, new quests to engage in, new allies to aid you in battle, and new potential to grow stronger. There is a constant symbiosis between the player's exploration and the plot's continuation.|
|Once you gain the ability to grow in FF13, you're still on a linear path. The path now has the occasional trailing path to chests nearby and very rarely lets you actually make a choice (though the choice is generally a pointless one since the options are "make the game harder now" or "make the game much harder later"). There are constant shifts in your party formation, boss fights that you can easily have the entirely wrong setup to deal with and basically lose immediately, and the whole game feels a bit like it's out to get you. This goes on for a very, very long time. I'm not certain how much longer past where I left off, but given reports, I'd guess around about 20 to 25 hours of the game's opening is summed up in this paragraph. And much like the path you're on, your character growth is similarly linear, with occasional cul-de-sacs along a perfectly linear progression path from point A to point B.|
|20 to 25 hours into Xenoblade, you'll probably be a quarter to a third of the way through the game and have explored a huge amount of territory. There are about 50 optional quests by that point that you can engage in, dozens of optional monsters to fight, a half-dozen enormous areas to explore, and the promise of yet more of this sort of fun to come. The closest Xenoblade ever comes to FF13's style in all of this is during the Ether Mines, wherein you're effectively descending on a linear path to the end goal with very few side-paths. However, even here it differs meaningfully: you can leave the Ether Mine at any time during your descent and return to any of its landmarks when you're ready to go on with the plot. In fact, Xenoblade only gets more expansive as you continue to play, as areas don't get locked off after you're through with them (except, amusingly, for the Ether Mine).|
|I have heard that FF13 becomes far more open and significantly less linear once you reach the 20- to 25-hour mark. But Xenoblade starts out significantly less linear and only becomes more open as the game goes on (whereas FF13 becomes about as open as Xenoblade starts and only ends up returning to The Hallway(tm) for the final stretch). It highlights a significant difference in design philosophy between the two games, and also highlights for me that I much prefer the more inherently open option than the one that keeps me on the rails for half the game. I will eventually go back to finish FF13 and probably never play it again, as I cannot see the value in suffering through such an experience a second time. But I know for sure that I will replay Xenoblade Chronicles many, many times and find new little surprises each time I do. In the war for my attention, the Wii underdog wins out over the big-budget PS3 tour-de-force. I can live with that.|
ARTICLE: 10/13/14 - Game Design 102
|Some years ago, I posted a list of 20 game design tips that could help any budding game developer out in starting their endeavours. Here's 20 more for you, free of charge!|
|21. Keep failure states short; the sooner the player's back in the action, the better.|
|22. If it doesn't make sense in a way that the player can't progress because of it, change it so it does make sense.|
|23. Avoid long stretches where the player has nothing interesting to do in any way you can.|
|24. Clear communication with your players is important, both during and after development.|
|25. Random is not fun. If you can make a robust system instead, do so.|
|26. Know your scope and stick to it. Finish what you've started before you go adding new features.|
|27. If it doesn't feel "good enough" yet, don't label it as complete or rush a release.|
|28. Don't just listen to your players; observe how they play too. You can learn a lot about what needs to change by doing so.|
|29. Balance is an ugly thing to try to implement. Recognize before you begin that it has many potential measuring sticks, all incompatible with one another.|
|30. Know the difference between challenging and punishing. If you want the former, keep consistent to your own rules.|
|31. Avoid throwing in a mess of different gameplay systems that all work differently. Outside of minigame collections, this is not really appreciated by players.|
|32. Flash-implement new features in small chunks, so you can iterate on and improve them quickly.|
|33. If you need to start over on something, just do it. It will almost always work better in its next iteration.|
|34. Simple is better. If you can make it less of a hassle for the player, do so.|
|35. Functional is better. If you can make it more user-friendly, do so.|
|36. Versatile is better. If you can make it so the player doesn't have to go through a dozen different systems, do so.|
|37. Cohesion is important. If things don't work right together, you need to make them work right together.|
|38. Variety is important. Getting a good balance of features that work right and stand out from one another sufficiently without feeling forced or tacked on is always a goal.|
|39. When you get right down to it, every game boils down to a series of experiences that play off of one another. Don't forget this fact.|
|40. It would be remiss of me not to remind you, as ever, that you do not take control away from the player.|
|As ever, it's my hope that these lessons are not any sort of surprise to most game developers. Though a lot of them are difficult to follow through on, especially given budget and time constraints, it is a noble goal to at least aim to do so.|
NEWS: 04/01/14 - So I wrote a book...
|Yes, I wrote a book. A full-lenth, epic sci-fi novel, in fact. No fooling; the upload date was a bit of a coincidence mixed with an inside joke. You can find it here. I hope you enjoy it!|
EDITORIAL: 03/22/14 - How Not to Design an Interface
|I can't even believe, in 2014, that I should feel the need to write an article like this. The personal computer revolution started before I was even born, and yet still I am encountering cases of interface design that suggest that the designer has no familiarity whatsoever with the medium they are working with. I am utterly sick of this sort of thing, and so I choose to rant. I apologize in advance.|
|My story begins some time ago, actually: almost 8 years ago to be exact. The item in question was a video game, called Steambot Chronicles. This game chose to violate basic interface sensibilities established well over 20 years prior with its dialogue boxes, by not only having a pointless input delay before the player's choices did anything, but also occasionally starting the cursor on options besides the first one on the list. This was not done on accident; it was highly intentional and not appreciated at all, engineered I can only assume around purposely screwing the player over. At the time I was utterly apalled that anyone could violate basic common sense so badly. Little did I realize that it was just the first in a long line of horribly-designed interfaces I would encounter over the next few years...|
|Let's skip ahead to last year, to one of the more recently-remembered horrible interface design choices. This one was for a banking site, and it was truly one to offend the sensibilities of anyone who values account security at all. At random, the login for this site would require you to input your security questions instead of your password. Let me repeat that: you are required to input information about yourself that is easily accessed by anyone on the entire internet instead of your hopefully much more secure password at random. Having had the foresight to realize that security questions are inherently insecure, I had entered nonsense information in them as usual and then forgotten it, because like any sane person, I expected that I would never need to re-input that data. Cue my enraged surprise when I ran into this "feature". After an ordeal resetting the damned security questions (which the bank happily informed me they would not be changing the usage of), I proceeded to set them up as effectively extra passwords instead. Even if my bank does not value my account security much, I certainly do.|
|On the flipside of the spectrum is something I encountered today, an example of pointless over-security for a site that really, really does not need it. TV Tropes, I discovered, has no way to recover a lost username. Now you might be thinking that nobody ever loses their username for an account, and you would be very wrong. Take a look at just about any site you regularly visit and you will find that the password recovery system tends to send your username with it too, or there will be an explicit "recover username" option instead. This is a standard, well-understood necessary feature for any modern login system. And TV Tropes does not have it. At all. In fact, their password recovery system explicitly requires you to input your username on top of having no way to recover a username independently. Throw in the fact that they use Captcha for every single account-related page, and you have a case of a site that thinks its account security is far, FAR more important than it really is. Most of it seems to be deisnged around the concept of protecting the site itself, not the user's account.|
|I reiterate once more: it is 2014. We have had over 40 years to figure out interface design. How is anyone still making such gross failures of basic comprehension of what it means to make an interface that actually takes into account the needs of the user? This cannot keep happening. To everyone still designing clunky, unintuitive, and/or intentionally counterintuitive interfaces: get with the times, please. We don't want excuses, we want results.|
EDITORIAL: 01/08/14 - Terraria - A Look at Poor Gameplay Balancing
|I recently picked up Terraria during the last Steam sale, and decided to see what the big deal was. I now have a pretty good idea of why it's well-liked, and also a pretty good idea of why it's not actually a very good game. The short version: the combat system is a complete mess that's so unbalanced that any potential for fun is constantly thwarted by it.|
|Let's start with the good, then. It's absurdly open-world, to the point that you practically have no goals outside of ones vaguely hinted at by the NPCs that populate your town. There's a good reward system for exploration. Finding new areas of the massive cave system always feels exciting. The non-combat side of the game is quite solid and entertaining.|
|And then we get to the bad... Terraria was pretty clearly meant to be an exploration game, as the combat in it is lacking, to say the least. If we're generous, we could call it tacked on. If we're being brutally honest, it's abhorrently bad. On top of having the same problem as every CastleVania in recent memory (ie. everything takes about a billion hits to die and can kill you in about 3 hits; mind you, you have less than 1 second of invincibility frames after getting hit, so you can go from full health to dead in seconds), it also lacks the sort of fine movement control that makes that sort of thing something you can deal with in said CastleVania games. The enemy HP problem is not hard to put into perspective: no weapon has more than 100 base attack (most of the best stuff tops out at around 60), yet most late-game common enemies have over 500 HP; most bosses in the neighborhood of 50,000 at the low end. You end up spending most "battles" just clicking and clicking and clicking and clicking, and it's boring as hell.|
|There is a difference between challenging and dickish, and Terraria's combat system falls far closer to the latter than the former. The thing about a challenge is, it doesn't resort to cheap tricks to make the player suffer. A challenge has potential for the player to adapt to it, respond with a variety of techniques, and come out on top without resorting to cheap tricks themselves. Terraria boss fights offer none of this. Either you have enough defense and stat buffs that the boss you're fighting can't kill you before you can kill it, or you have a battle of attrition and ultimately die. There is zero middle ground, because every single boss has a series of utterly impossible-to-dodge attacks. No joke, they cannot be dodged; most of them home in on you faster than you can move, and many others use a pincer-style attack pattern where evading one attack sends you straight into another attack. This is not good design. This is atrocious design, the sort one would expect of an absolute amatuer's first battle engine ever.|
|Then too, the combat is also paradoxically too easy. Certain weapons (chainsaws in particular) can completely stunlock melee enemies forever in any quantity. Certain spells (Demon Scythe especially) make it impossible for melee enemies to even come near you. And on the flipside, any enemy that doesn't just run at you like an idiot is absurdly difficult because literally everything in this game is designed around hitting targets right in front of you. Trying to aim with the mouse is about as unintuitive as it gets, since the pointer is microscopic, semitransparent, and easily missed in the action due to all of the carnage around you (some idiot made its default color red, the color you see most often during battle).|
|To be fair, until you defeat what was originally the last boss of the game, Terraria is fairly fun and a decent experience. But once you do beat said ex-final-boss, the game spontaneously goes from "fun" to "frustratingly obtuse", with hours upon hours of senseless grinding required to even begin to stand a chance against the added enemies. Ostensibly this is all "post-game" content, but I would argue that when your "post-game" content is in fact more extensive than your main game content, it is not "post-game" at all; you just failed to recognize that you made the game bigger than anticipated. I sincerely hope that "hardmode" for Terraria gets a HUGE overhaul in future releases, to account for the massive spike in difficulty and the fact that 90% of said content is effectively impossible to players who have not dedicated unholy amounts of time beefing up to tackle it.|
|So that's Terraria in a nutshell: a decent game marred by poor combat design and a tacked-on second half that gets excused for its poor design because it was added later.|
PONDERING: 11/21/13 - Big Picture and Small Picture Thinking
|I keep running into this over and over again: this inexplicable inability of so many people to focus on the small picture. Big picture thinking (or as I like to call it, "making a forest out of some random trees") seems to dominate the minds of so many that they cannot seem to grasp that the details are by and large just as important. Moreso, really.|
|One of my favorite examples of this sort of thing is a scenario which happened constantly back in college: I would be a member of a group, and we would schedule a meeting on a specific day. However, unless I brought it up, nobody would specify a location or time. And more to the point, I would have to further prompt after I'd gotten my fellow group members to grudgingly commit to a time and place the specifics of where we would actually meet up in that location and the itinerary for where we would go from there. This is just absurd. Why, when scheduling a meeting, would the subject of where and when it takes place not be one of the first things you get out of the way? Venue and timing are absolutely critical, yet it always fell upon me at the tail end of the discussion of how we were all going to meet up and somehow accomplish far more than we ever had before in any meeting ever to point out that we hadn't even picked a time or place.|
|And there, I think, lies the root of the problem: most people are big-picture thinkers because they don't know how to start with the small picture and make it define the big one. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say, they don't want to do it that way because it's harder. Big-picture thinking is stupidly easy: you come up with an idea and say "let's do it!" and in your mind it all comes together perfectly... and then fails to even come close to resembling that in real life for any plan more complex than "open a can of chili and make lunch". But it's so easy to think that way! You don't have to know the specifics! You don't have to consider limitations! You just say "make it so" and it becomes so! Except that it doesn't. So why do people keep doing it? (Psst, because it's easy!)|
|Anything worth doing is worth doing right, and that means you need to start with taking tally of the fundamentals. Know what the trees are before you declare it to be a forest, and figure out how they're going to limit you (and how they're going to work to your advantage). It's often stated that projects which have extensive planning before any work gets done on them are more successful, and that's exactly for the reason I'm going into now: you have to do the groundwork to make sure your big picutre has a foundation to sit on. Otherwise, you're just going at the idea haphazardly and are setting yourself up to fail.|
|So the next time you get a brilliant idea that seems world-changing, stop. Don't go fantasizing about it. Instead, take stock of what you have to work with. Figure out where things have to go, when, why, and in what order to get that idea to work. Reject the big picture model and focus on the small picture instead. You know where you want to go, but don't go making up imaginary steps between here and then. Figure out where the real first steps lie, and work out where the next steps are likely going to be based on that. It's much more difficult, but it has a far higher chance of success too. Be a small-picture thinker. You won't miss the forest for the trees if you do it right; you'll DEFINE the forest with the trees instead.|
FUN TIMES: 08/19/13 - Kerbal Space Program!
|I knew if I complained long enough that it would happen eventually. Kerbal Space Program is a game where the randomizer pretty much doesn't exist. And it is a blast to play.|
|KSP is pretty much the pinnacle of game design that I've been looking for all this time: one where instead of shoving in rand() calls to cover up the designer's laziness, the game has actually been developed so that it doesn't need those randomizer calls. Instead KSP is a game that relies on actual physics calculations to devise a challenge for the player, wherein their decisions and their skills are 100% responsible for their success or failure. And it is well and truly glorious. It's only made better by the fact that the player is the one building the rockets, piece by piece, so it's entirely on their head when something goes wrong with their ship mid-mission (usually; it is still an alpha, so there are a few bugs, but they're getting ironed out a little more each release!).|
|It's not an easy game by any stretch of the imagination, of course. Even if it doesn't have any 1-in-256 shenannigans to ruin the player's day at random, it does have a mess of factors the player has to consider more or less at all times: mass, thrust, lift, gravity, impact tolerance, drag, fuel efficiency, timing, relative speed, relative position, orbital mechanics, and many others. Instead of supplementing lackluster and otherwise boring game design with random chance, Kerbal Space Program instead gives you a massively comprehensive set of things you're expected to at least pay passing attention to, and the potential for failure by and large comes from inattentiveness in one or more of these areas. There's also a real focus on developing skills: if you don't understand how orbiting works, you will not be staying in space for very long (or will be staying there quite a bit longer than planned!). If you don't understand how actual orbital mechanics work, you're not going to have a fun time trying to dock. If you're not mindful of the Tyrrany of the Rocket Equation, you'll run out of fuel before your mission ends (or maybe not even make it to orbit at all). It's a game that requires you to think, to learn, and to apply.|
|This is the direction I want to see gaming go in. A direction where skill is what matters, where there are many variables that test that skill, and where the player can always find new ways to challenge themselves and improve those skills. My hat goes off to Squad for making the single best game I have ever played. You are an inspiration to me, and you give me hope that gaming will not descend into a state of nothing but thinly-veiled dice rolls!|
BUSINESS SENSE: 06/04/13 - Third-Party Advertisements Are a Dying Business Strategy
|It's been a hell of a busy year. But enough about me, let's talk a bit about business. More specifically, a very poor business practice which is losing its effectiveness in light of developments which grant alternatives to consumers. I am, of course, referring to the age-old method of intrusive third-party advertisements in media.|
|Back during the B.I. (Before Internet), intrusive advertisements were not really noticed much. The reason for this was manifold: they had been a part of culture for literally over a century, they were entirely possible to ignore if you didn't want them, and they actually had some proper variety to them so that you weren't being assaulted with the same handful of ads every few minutes. It also helped that users didn't really have a choice in the matter; you couldn't get a magazine with no advertisements, and you had to pay extra to get TV channels that didn't run ads. (Said stations now ALSO run ads, but the discussion of the failure of both cable TV and pay-per-view TV to fulfill one of their core promises is a subject for a different day.)|
|This all changed with the mainstream adoption of the internet, of course. The thing about web advertising is, it is far more intrusive than any previous form of advertising has ever been. It combines the worst aspects of television ads (that they're garish, bright, animated, and distracting) with the worst aspects of print ads (that you cannot avoid looking at them because they're co-occupying the same space as the content you're trying to read) for a true disaster of sensory disrespect. For a number of years, we had dark times on our hands. Nothing we did on the internet would truly be engaging, because somewhere on the screen an epilepsy-inducing "Congratulations You Are the Millionth Visitor No Really Come Claim Your Totally Legitimate Prize" ad would be flickering constantly and distracting us. This only got worse when video ads started emerging. If you thought a flashing technicolor banner trying to get you to shock the monkey was already pretty bad, imagine how much more annoying it is if you're suddenly interrupted in your reading by a loud declaration about how you absolutely must buy the latest car from Chevrolet? Completely unacceptable! And we haven't even gotten into the intentional middle fingers to the user that are pop-up and pop-under ads.|
|Fortunately, it wasn't long before someone got sick of the abuse being laid upon our poor senses and developed the first ad blocker software. Initially designed to get rid of the bane of user-friendliness that were pop-ups and pop-unders (ads which got in the way of what you were doing until you banished them and ads which hid themselves like Trojans in a wooden horse to be sprung upon you when you were done browsing, respectively), these marvels of ingenuity developed quickly and intercepted the other advertisements as well. Soon it was entirely possible to view webpages without any intrusive ads at all! And what a difference this made! It was like a breath of fresh air. No demands from uncaring and unrelated merchants that we buy their goods. No flashing banners we've already seen a billion times before that have led us to actively boycott the product in question as revenge for its constant pestering us to buy it. No more sudden outbursts of unwanted noise from video ads trying to sell us this week's flavor of extreme potato chip. Just content: pure, undiluted, unsullied content. It was bliss.|
|Unsurprisingly, many sites that rely on such ads were none too happy at this development. The battles against ad blockers ensued, and continue to this day on some fronts. But many also realized that it's a wasted effort, and have backed off on their anti-ad-blocking crusades. The smart ones have found less passive ways to generate revenue, and are doing quite well even with as much as a third of their viewers blocking what ads their sites still feature. So now we come to the real point of this article: why is it that third-party advertisements don't work any longer? Is it really just that they're annoying? Or is there something a bit deeper than that?|
|The answer is very simple: they fail the most basic check of all in business strategy. I refer, of course, to the VRIO framework: is it Valuable, Rare, Inimitable, and Oriented towards profit? The answer to this question has changed over the years. Initially, advertisements were all four: it got the word out to many consumers at once, nobody had ever done it before, not many could afford to do it just yet, and the whole business model could be oriented around it. Grand times for all involved, in short. But it didn't stay that way...|
|Right around the end of WW1, advertising started to change. It was no longer rare, though it certainly was still valuable and oriented towards profit. It was accepted that you had to advertise if you wanted to succeed; the old word-of-mouth paradigm had arguably been ousted since those businesses who relied solely upon it no longer held a competitive advantage. Throughout the 1920s to the 1990s, advertisement was accepted as "how it's done". It was the competitive parity to do so. Easy enough, right?|
|Then the internet happened, and a chink in the inscrutable armor of advertisements was found. The fundamental nature of the internet is incompatible with traditional advertisements, because traditional advertisements rely utterly on a one-way interaction: the user has no input whatsoever on how the contents of a magazine will be organized once it's in their hands, nor can the contents of a day's TV programming be affected by the viewer. The user is utterly unable to guide the process, only to select which parts of the magazine to read or which stations to watch on the TV. The internet, however, is dynamic: the user can visit any website they wish at any time for any content. They do not have to wait for the content to be repeated if they missed it the first time, nor do they have to wait for the content to be specifically given to them on the websites they visit if it has ever been available elsewhere at any time. The average TV viewer or magazine reader might encounter a handful of diverse ads in their viewing experience; an internet user is likely to run into the exact same ad hundreds of times per day as they visit various parts of the same site and various sites that use the same ad hosts.|
|In light of this incompatibility, traditional advertisement has ceased to be valuable. As in any scenario, uncontrollable repetition of a tolerated element will, over the course of the repetitions, reduce the tolerance level. Eventually the tolerance will evaporate, and means will be sought out to prevent the intrusions entirely. And here is where the largest problem comes in for advertisements: there is now an alternative which is superior to them. Before, advertisements were unavoidable; now they are not. This, above all else, is why advertisements no longer hold value. They are no longer the best choice for the end user.|
|The solution to this, despite what many marketing majors might claim, is not to remove the superior alternative. This results in backlash, and quite severe backlash indeed when it comes to this sort of thing. Appealing to the user to put up with an inferior alternative that will not benefit them but will benefit you will also not work, for very obvious reasons. So what can be done? The answer is deceptively simple and completely in line with all of the internet's other changes: you can go back to the old model of word-of-mouth and self-promotion.|
|An entire market emerged with advertising, of products which in and of themselves had no monetary value yet generated a profit by proxy of the product advertisements that accompanied them. This model does not work any longer, however. Parasitic success of this sort is a byproduct of a broken model, and that model has been broken completely. Now content must serve itself and be self-sustaining. If you cannot directly monetize what you are producing, then what you are producing has no right to be made. If you wish to succeed in a world without advertisements, you have to go to market with something that is valuable, rare, inimitable, and oriented towards profit. This is as it should be, and I will not feel any pity for those who fail to learn this lesson even in light of what stands before them now.|
|The age of advertisement is dying; indeed, it is dead already to many. The age of self-sufficiency is upon those whose success thus far has relied entirely upon unrelated businesses to hoist them up. Either you monetize what you have, or you get out of the business. It's a brave new world that's been there all along; we just conveniently forgot for a century or two that was the case. If you cannot adapt to the changing of the tides, you will be swept under. So it has always been in business, and so it shall continue to be so long as the fundamental core of human economic behaviour continues to function as it has for centuries.|
MUSING: 06/09/12 - "Hardcore" Gamers are Out of Touch with Nintendo
|For once I think it's time to take a look at the whole "Nintendo doesn't care about the hardcore gamer" argument from the other angle. It's addressed rarely enough, for certain; few articles at all bother to even look at the finer details and see that the argument cuts both ways. But we're going to saw the other direction today, because it's high time somebody did.|
|The "Mario/Metroid/Zelda" mantra - This is one of the oldest "hardcore" Nintendo-related mantras, and it's often the most cited "why Nintendo sucks now" sayings. The "hardcore" perspective in question is that there are only three major Nintendo franchises that "count", those being Mario, Metroid, and Zelda. But let's look at some actual numbers (or approximations, but the scale here is what's relevant).|
|Mario (excluding Mario Kart): 360 million copies sold worldwide|
Touch Generations: 300 million copies sold worldwide
Pokemon: 200 million copies sold worldwide
Mario Kart: 90 million copies sold worldwide
Zelda: 70 million copies sold worldwide
Tetris: 38 million copies sold worldwide
Kirby: 32 million copies sold worldwide
Smash Bros: 23 million copies sold worldwide
Animal Crossing: 20 million copies sold worldwide
Metroid: 17 million copies sold worldwide
Star Fox: 11 million copies sold worldwide
Fire Emblem: 6 million copies sold worldwide
F-Zero: 6 million copies sold worldwide
Pikmin: 4 million copies sold worldwide
|Notice anything? While Mario is still the biggest Nintendo franchise, Zelda and Metroid aren't the other top 2; not even close in Metroid's case. So why are Touch Generations, Pokemon, Tetris, Kirby, Smash Bros, and Animal Crossing all discounted by the "Mario/Metroid/Zelda" crowd? Because 1.) several of them are dismissed as "casual" or "kiddie", and 2.) most of them didn't exist on the SNES. These two points highlight the other big problem with modern "hardcore" gamers who criticize Nintendo: many of them left before or during the N64 era and never bothered to keep up with the times.|
|The "Nintendo doesn't make hardcore games" mantra - Take a look at the list above. See the bottom five franchises? None of those are really mainstream. All of them are decidedly niche and meant to appeal to a more "sophisticated" sort of player. They are, in short, "hardcore" games. Nintendo makes plenty of games meant to appeal to more depth-seeking gamers. The problem is that, ironically, the very crowd that's demanding such games from them is ignoring these games because they have their mantra that Nintendo does not do this kind of game.|
|The "Nintendo platforms don't have violent games" mantra - This one baffles me. There are plenty of violent games on Nintendo platforms, even if Nintendo themselves don't make them. And guess what? They don't sell well at all. Do you know why? Because the target audience is determined to believe that Nintendo platforms don't have violent games. It's not just a self-fulfilling prophecy, it's a deterministic self-fulfilling prophecy. Even if the content is provided, the consumers who demand it refuse to buy it.|
|The "hardcore" beef against Nintendo is a smokescreen, in short. It exists solely for the purpose of keeping the uninformed self-proclaimed "hardcore" gamer from picking up a Nintendo system, and to keep developers from seeing any investment value in putting "hardcore" niche titles on their platforms. Quite frankly, it's insulting and degrading, and demonstrates clearly that there is a sizeable chunk of gamers out there who would rather have someone else tell them what to think so they don't have to take a critical look at things themselves and potentially realize that they've been misled.|
ANECDOTE: 05/06/12 - How DRM Promotes Piracy and Loss of Future Sales
|It's a rare game that gets me riled up into an apoplectic fit without even getting past the title screen. But Batman: Arkham Asylum has managed to do just that, and all through some very, VERY poor decisions on the behalf of the game's developers in order to "protect" their game from piracy.|
|The biggest problem with the game is Games for Windows. Specifically, it uses this "service", and refuses to run without it. But that is only the beginning of its problems. You see, Games for Windows is already relatively unreliable, but this game has gone out of its way to make it completely worthless. Upon starting the game, it forced me to make a GFW profile. I tolerated this, since I saw little reason not to. Then it told me quite bald-facedly "you are not logged in and won't be able to save your game". Even though I was quite clearly logged in according to Games for Windows. All attempts to get it to recognize this fact (logging out and back in, restarting the game, even making a new GFW profile) did nothing at all to mitigate the problem.|
|What commenced was about two hours of frustrated and fruitless forum-crawling to find a solution, which I never did. What I discovered along the way was that there are dozens of OTHER problems related to Games for Windows that can cause this game to not function on top of the one I'd run into. The only thing more infuriating than not being able to find anyone else having the same problem as you are is discovering that everyone else is having even WORSE problems than you are, especially when the problem you're having makes the product you paid good money for completely unusable.|
|I feel genuinely ripped off. Square-Enix/Eidos has effectively stolen my money and left me with a defective product, and with aboslutely no interest in helping me resolve the issue (or anyone else's, for that matter). The problem was caused by their software, due to their decisions, yet we are the ones who are taking it in the pants since they've already got our money. At least several hundred other customers share my pain due to various other related-yet-different problems. But the real kicker? Those who chose to pirate the game not only never have to worry about these problems that plague those of us who actually paid for the game, but they can also apply unendorsed user-made fixes that solve other problems with the game if you ever do manage to get it to work. In short, the people who paid nothing are getting the most out of this game, while those of us who paid for it are getting the least.|
|In societies doomed to fall, the criminals are rewarded and the innocent are punished for the acts of said criminals. This nicely describes the nature of the more Draconian DRM used in the video game industry today, and is the number one reason why I will never be buying any game ever again that sports Games for Windows "support". I will also not be giving my business to any company who "secures" their PC games with any other form of DRM above and beyond Steam. I would rather go without than get a product which does not even work. And I can assure you, I am far from alone in my thinking.|
EDITORIAL: 01/21/12 - The Failure of Human Decency in Modern Business
|I can't help but notice that ethics courses have failed at their job all but completely. It's gotten to the point where expecting a basic modicum of respect for the intelligence, privacy, and basic human rights of anyone a given business is interested in getting the attention of is too much to expect. Even from charities.|
|For the last month, my cell phone has been bombarded at least once and often twice daily from calls labeled "UNAVAILABLE". Without fail, it goes off at 8:15AM (and often 8:15PM too), no matter how many times I refuse to pick it up, and it's always the same caller. They already hit every single item on the on the Telemarketing Scum Checklist, but what makes this especially tragic is that this is apparently not a telemarketer call; it's a charity (or claims to be; it may well be a scam set up that way to evade the Do Not Call List, that'd hardly be a first). A charity with a very poor grasp of ethics, I might add. They are robo-calling people constantly and refusing to give up no matter what, and in fact are driving people away from them in the process. This charity is doing everything wrong for trying to drum up support over the phone, and I'm sure their justification is "well it gets us more donations than when we don't". Newsflash: if what you're doing is making huge quantities of people hate you, you're doing it wrong. You failed your supply and logistics course pretty hardcore if the current bottom line is all you're looking at; solutions which will work in the long-term is what you should be focused on.|
|But there is no focus on the long-term (and the ensuing consequences that this implies) in business at large any more. There is only focus on getting more money. While you will find exceptions, the rule is now "maximum profits at any cost", and even businesses that by their nature should know better are engaging in it. Ethics have been put by the wayside, as they so often are in a situation where being unethical results in greater short-term gains. Some businesses (most notably the scam companies) never had a drop of human decency to begin with and seek only to exploit from the beginning, but most companies are not in fact run by people who consider the lot of us to be "marks". So why are they engaging in acts that are quite obviously unethical? Something is very wrong with the ethical state of business when a college student seeking to enter the field will ask unironically, "When do I take the course that teaches me to be a soulless bastard?" (Yes, I actually heard a fellow student say something very like this.)|
|I've said it before, I'll say it again: profits are not everything and focusing on that alone proves that you shouldn't be in business. Profits are a natural and sustainable side-effect of effective business practices, and a short-term result of poor business practices. It's time for corporations to wake up and realize that they've been pursuing the latter when they should have been looking at the former.|
RPGOne Translations - The game translation site that I work for. UPDATE: RPGOne is no more, sadly...
Phantasia Knights' Website - The website of my fellow RPGOne member and good friend, Phantasia Knights. UPDATE: He rarely updates any longer.
GameFAQs - Still the best site to get information on games. Some of my guides are posted there.
Something Awful - I think the site's name speaks for itself. Comedy gold, assuming you have enough sense to not take it seriously.UPDATE: I don't even go here any more, though half the LPs I enjoy come from there.
The Let's Play Archives - More LPs than you can shake a stick at!
The Talking Time LPing Forum - Where I (used to) LP games. A pretty fun place.
Engrish.com - An amusing look at English as it's often (mis)used in Japan. Update: I don't go here any more either...
Homestar Runner - A Flash animation site that pretty much everybody has heard of by now. But it's still amusing. Update: This place stopped getting updates years ago.
Video Game Recaps - For all your snarky recapping needs! High-quality farcical looks at modern RPG's. Update: I rarely visit this now...
TV Tropes - The place to go when you want to read up on the various plot devices that the media uses to keep narratives flowing.
iLL WiLL PreSS - Home of Neurotically Yours, aka. Foamy the Squirrel, the funniest fast-talking rodent ever to be put in Flash format.
That Guy With the Glasses/Channel Awesome - Still generally pretty entertaining, one of the first "internet TV stations" that really took off.
The Spoony Experiment - Classic fun gaming reviews, from the Spoony One himself.
UrbanDictionary - Useful for looking up slang terms. Also amusing at times.
The Whirlpool - A fairly extensive site for translation patches. A bit biased, though... Update: Pretty sure it doesn't exist any more!
Merriam-Webster Online - The online version of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and Thesarus. Handy for writers everywhere.
Jim Breen's WWWJDIC - A wonderful resource for those in search of any sort of information about the Japanese language.
RPGamer - The place to go for the latest info on up-and-coming RPG's. Update: I don't go here any more either.
YouTube - Has anybody actually not heard of YouTube by now? A video repository (or possibly suppository, depending on your perspective).
El Goonish Shive - It's weird, but one hell of a story comic. Read it, or the owl will eat you.
Misfile - Well-drawn story comic, and pretty interesting. Coincidentally shares a few themes with EGS.
Sluggy Freelance - Is it not nifty? Worship the comic!
Bruno the Bandit - Sluggy Freelance's arch-nemesis? Maybe... It's usually amusing, and relies heavily on puns for humor. Update: Dead comic.
Goats - Yeah. Uh... It's... Yeah. Can't really describe this one... Update: Nobody's gonna describe it as anything but "dead" now.
Sinfest - If you enjoy religious satire, then you'd probably enjoy much of this comic.
Cyanide and Happiness - Surrealist near-stick-figure webcomic, frequently with very naughty humor. Update: Don't read it any more.
Something Happens - Another surrealist webcomic, this one better drawn and more introspective. Update: Died young, it did.
Antihero for Hire - Made by the author of Adventurers!, a much darker-themed comic.
8-Bit Theater - A spritecomic about Final Fantasy I. Rather famous, I believe. Update: Comic all over and thank you for players.
VGCats - Gaming-related webcomic. Usually pretty funny. Update: Technically not dead, but also technically not very funny any longer.
Ctrl+Alt+Del - Another gaming webcomic, this one highly oriented on XBox. Eh, funny is funny. Update: After a brief debacle, it's now all one-offs. Probably for the best.
Penny Arcade - Yet another gaming webcomic. This one is well-known.
Little Gamers - A Swedish gaming webcomic. Yeah, I read a lot of webcomics about gaming... Update: I don't read this one any more either.
Dueling Analogs - Another gaming webcomic? INCONCEIVABLE! Update: Pretty much the Ebaumsworld of webcomics now.
Brawl in the Family - Yep, a gaming webcomic. I don't even need to say anything else.
AWKWARD ZOMBIE - A very entertaining once-a-week video game comic.
Life in Aggro - Also a very entertaining once-a-week video game comic.
The GaMERCaT - Also also a very entertaining once-a-week video game comic.
Darths & Droids - A Dungeons and Dragons-style re-imagining of the Star Wars series. It actually makes the prequels entertaining, which is in itself no small feat.
Real Life - A webcomic that does a bit of everything. Usually pretty interesting.
Three Panel Soul - A webcomic about life as a 30-something. I think everyone in my generation reads it or something like it.
Questionable Content - Pretty much a slice-of-life comic. It's fun enough, though watch out for the occasional dramabomb.
Candi - A comic about a college student's troubles. I read it while I was in college, go figure.
xkcd - A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language. Not suitable for art majors.
Battlepug - Erm, well... You have to see it for yourself, really. The title does not lie.
MegaTokyo - Highly story-oriented webcomic. Pretty interesting overall. Update: This comic is perpetually in a state of being dead and undead. It's Schrodinger's Webcomic.
(Insert George W. Bush joke here)
Google - Who doesn't know about Google? A great search engine, it is.
ZSNES - One of the best SNES emulators available.
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