The Clockwork Bard

Tinkering with the Cogs of Gaming

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fall of the Foot Clan (GB) Review

Been too long since the last post again.  Haven’t really had time for a proper post, so I dug into the draft bin to see what I could see.  This was to be the second article for Clockwork Bard, but got scrapped at the finish-line for reasons I’ve since forgotten.  With the Turtles seeing yet another rebirth a few weeks back, I thought I’d toss it up.  Enjoy.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - Fall of the Foot Clan

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fall of the Foot Clan (hereby known as FotFC, because that title is a mouth full) is a guilty pleasure of mine.  Please don’t confuse that with an endorsement of quality.  There are far better games you could be playing.  But it meant something to me as a child, something deeper than the TMNT branding that I so voraciously consumed.

 

Background

FotFC was the first of three GameBoy games in the franchise.  It was released in 1990 by Konami (under their Ultra Games brand), immediately following the first Nintendo Entertainment System’s TMNT title, the extremely popular Konami arcade beat ‘em up, and the first Turtles movie.  Turtle fever was in its prime.  It was a good year for Turtle lovers.

It’s a rather simple action platformer/brawler in which the player takes control of one of the four titular turtles as they trek across 5 enemy-filled stages in their quest to defeat the evil Shredder and Krang and save their friend April O’Neil.  Yes, it’s the rubber-stamped plot of every TMNT adventure ever, and we expected no less.  Turtle Power!

Presentation

Streets of New York

The streets of New York look great with gritty detail and parallax scrolling.

All three of the TMNT GameBoy releases had strikingly different visual styles.  The second took strongly after the cartoon.  Though it had its own look, to a degree, the goofy aesthetic was distinctively Saturday Morning.  The third game kept to the grittier look of the comic books.  The first took its cue from… well, everything.  The TMNT brand around the time this was in development was still in a bit of an identity crisis, as perhaps can best be seen in the toy line.  The original series of toys took their inspiration entirely from the Mirage comic books, with darker themes and a high level of quirky detail.  The second series, called “Wacky Action” figures, attempted to cater more to the cartoon audience, using a simpler, more vibrant and animated look.  The look didn’t quite match either source, and was dropped in favor of returning to the comic look.

Why am I rambling on about toys in a video game review?  Well, this was an awkward period for the mutant teenagers, as they made the very jolting transition from violent and surreal comic to the tame, mainstream, children’s cartoon.  The cartoon and comic both had well established styles starkly different from each other.  Yet much of the Turtle media that followed felt obligated to derive from both sources, both in look and narrative.  The movies, the reboot cartoons and many video games all feel like alchemical experiments, trying to hit a sweet spot by mixing aspects of those two base ingredients.  But where as these are smooth blends of traits mixed to create something new, FotFC feels more like a heterogeneous mishmash of elements lacking a coherent theme to bring them together.

The characters here are larger and more detailed than the later games (and most GameBoy games in general) but lack the stylized charm of either.  The turtle’s faces and deformed weapons look more like the doodles from my elementary school notebook.  Some characters seem to come from the first series toys, others from the second and a few show a strong Saturday morning cartoon influence.  For example, the mouser robots look more like their wobbly, wind-up toy variant from the Wacky Action figures than the crouched, intimidating, raptor-like predators they are better known for being.

Evolution of the Mouser

Here we can see the heavy influence of the wind-up toy on the FotFC Mouser.  The size, posture and proportions match that of the toy, while the coloration matches the style used by the Saturday morning cartoon.  The resulting creation simply lacks the appeal of those little metal munchers we knew and loved.

Showdown with the Shredder

The barren cave is a less than impressive backdrop to face down with the infamous Shredder.

The stages aesthetics tend towards the dystopian feel of the comics.  Each of the 5 levels brings something different, some even having multiple segments with different looks and feels to them.  Not all are the same quality, however.  The mountain cave, for example, is especially dull, with little to no defining features or terrain.  The streets and sewers of the first stage, however, look absolutely stunning, with parallax scrolling effects and a gritty detail that impresses but doesn’t intrude.  At first, the Technodrome successfully captures that alien look of organically-grown technology you would expect, but then switches to a mostly barren hall almost devoid of detail for the second half of the stage.

Between each of the levels are cutscenes, which simply pull stills straight out of the first few episodes of the animated cartoon.  These look great, but don’t fit most of the other material in the game.  They also sport some hilariously cheesy snippets of dialog.

All in all, the quality of the visuals on show here are well above average.  It’s the inconsistencies in both quality and theme that hurts the total package.  A more unified aesthetic and quality could have explored some of that lost potential.

Saving April

“We are here to save April?” Silly Mikey, that IS April!

The audio brings it together much better.  The music tracks are catchy, energetic and feel like they fit the environments and action.  The old factory and sewer themes are appropriately slow and eerie, without losing their drive.  The third stage ramps up the tension and pace as you jump between moving trucks on the highway.  The recognizable intro theme to the TMNT cartoon is used multiple times, but kept spaced apart by other tracks to both emphasize it and keep it from overstaying its welcome.

Highway Stage

The Highway Stage has pulse pounding tunes.

The sound effects are also appropriately more than just bleeps and bloops.  Clangs, crashes, swooshes and explosions add character to the comic/cartoon feel of the actions taking place.  Sound cues are well placed.  Many hazards announce themselves before attacking, such as some enemy projectiles or the rev of a motorcycle engine just before a group of foot soldiers try to run you down.  An obvious chime announces when a strike knocks your turtle low on health, but does not keep chirping annoyingly.  Konami has always been known for their very high quality audio work, and that dedication makes this a better game for it.

Interaction

The controls in FotFC are extremely simple but solid.  You can walk side to side, jump, and attack.  Attacks consist of jump kicks in air, strikes with your weapon when standing or walking, and a throwing star while crouching.  Everything is responsive and open to input and all three moves have their advantages.  Throwing stars are great for defeating those clusters of tiny enemies from a distance, before they can close in, but take multiple hits to take down stronger foes and bounce harmlessly off of stage end boss enemies.  Your weapon attack is versatile and quick, and even allows you to turn around mid-swing, taking out enemies on either side of you in one stroke.  Jump kicks take slightly more care to connect, but effectively eliminate airborne threats as well as decimate the few enemies which take two weapon strikes to kill in a single blow.

Technodrome Part 1

Roadkill Rodney takes two hits with your weapon or one with a jump kick.

I have to make a quick head-nod to usability here.  While the throwing stars are normally less powerful than your other assaults, if you use them at close range, they strike with the force of your normal, standing weapon strike.  This means, if an enemy was close enough that you could have used your weapon, but had to duck to avoid something flying at your skull, you aren’t penalized for using the weaker throwing stars.  I absolutely love little accessibility concessions like these.

The trouble you’ll hear from a lot of reviews has to do with the pace at which your character walks.  The turtles move at what I can best describe as a brisk stroll, a leisurely jaunt or a lively saunter.  Their attacks are not lacking urgency, but walking and jumping have a lazy float about them that shows no immediate need to be anywhere anytime soon.  This doesn’t hamper core game play, except maybe during boss fights.  The excessive hang-time on jumping actually works well for placing jump kicks and evading threats.  The plodding pace fits the desired effect for which the mechanics seem to aim.  But, I’ll get to all of that more in just a bit.  For the moment, it’s worth simply accepting those critiques on their original merit.  Your turtle’s stolid gait is not exactly pulse-pounding feedback.  We do expect reactions with a bit more passion for our button presses in modern action gaming.  Even the twirl of the turtles’ weapons as they promenade, while nice visual touches, give an atmosphere of apathy.

Your life bar and score are placed in a thin strip along the bottom of the play area.  Given what a premium screen space goes for in this zoomed perspective, their conservative size is appreciated.  The life bar, which is the more important of the two status updates, takes the majority of the space with 8 large boxes, each representing a discrete hit the turtle can take before failing and being captured.  In platforming games like this, I typically prefer this sort of information on the bottom like this, since the player’s character spends the majority of their time down near the ground.  It’s less important for things like score and stage number, which don’t need periodic referencing.  In the case of my character’s health, which is the defining meter of success and failure, I prefer to not need to draw my eyes from the play area to check up on it.

Player Narrative

This game follows an action game formula that was far more common in early computer gaming.  While an attempt to pidgeon-hole FotFC would set it loosely in the “Action Beat ‘em up” category, it doesn’t share the play conventions we typically associate in that area.  Typical beat ‘em ups place importance on careful positioning of your character while you strategically bob in and out of range of attacks by fairly durable enemies.  FotFC is much more about quick reactions to encounters that, for the most part, come to you.  As you progress, enemies and obstacles quickly leap on screen, calling upon your reflexes to either destroy or evade the threat.  While terrain changes to mix up these encounters and keep them interesting, terrain hazards are rare.  This mutes the platforming aspect of the game.  If there are encounters which require leaping, it is because something like a spiked column or boulder suddenly flew on screen.  Perhaps the best comparison I can give to a popular title is that of Kung-Fu (1985) for the NES.

For this sort of design, that plodding pace I talked about earlier is particularly common.  Evasion isn’t meant to be the immediate answer to any threat.  Rather, you need to decide within a moment’s time whether you need to strike at the threat or move.  In some levels, you might find that progressing too quickly puts more on the screen than you can handle.  The motorcycles in the third part of stage one must be jumped with careful timing.  There is little room for error. If other enemies are still roaming the ground, you may corner yourself into taking a few unavoidable hits.

This changes up when it comes time for boss fights, since bosses are not so easily dispatched.  Around six or seven hits are needed to put one down.  Since they get a brief invulnerability period after each hit, the same as you, a rapid assault will not be very effective.  In these fights, placement means everything, as your stiff joints simply cannot react fast enough.  For example, Shredder will decimate you in a frontal assault.  His sword can kill you in 4 hits and has better reach than your attacks.  Getting in, striking, and getting out is possible; but will more likely get you shredded.  Instead, leaping over and striking from behind is far more effective.  Other bosses are significantly easier, and most can be defeated without even moving, should you find the right spot.  The end fight with Krang is even kind of disappointing this way.  You could potentially wait at the left side of the screen and simply attack him whenever he wanders near for an easy win.

Unfortunately for the mean green fighting machines, this plodding style of action game was already on its way out, even in 1990.  Games were becoming more complex and hardware was becoming more capable.  The Sega Genesis/Mega Drive was out and only a year from releasing Sonic the Hedgehog, along with the “blast processing” craze.  The NES was in the sweet spot of its lifespan, with games like Super Mario Bros. 3, Mega Man 3River City Ransom, Super C and Castlevania III bringing in the new decade.

Summary

TMNT:FotFC is a great little game, for what it is (a toy franchise cash-in).  With an identity as muddled as its franchise, it still manages to supply its young audience with an approachable challenge, some appealing presentation and solid gameplay.  But as time goes on, it will probably be remembered more for its gentler pacing that turned off so many action gamers.

 

.hack .review (.hack//Infection through .hack//Quarantine for PS2)

We’re leaving together
But still it’s farewell
And maybe we’ll come back,
To earth, who can tell?

I guess there is no one to blame
We’re leaving ground
Will things ever be the same again?
It’s the final countdown.

Do the final moments leading up to a major game release warrant a Europe reference?  Probably not.  That didn’t stop me from playing it for the final hours going into the August 25th launch of Guild Wars 2.  80s hair metal makes everything more exciting.

While hours could be killed that way, rewind back a couple weeks and it’s another story.  Two weeks of one song, no matter how rocking the guitar solo, will evoke homicide from room mates.  I had to find other sources of repetition and monotony to kill the calendar.

Classic console RPG time!

.hack – The Franchise

“Dot hack”, as it is pronounced, was a “thing” around 2003.  Where as most franchises owe origin to a single product; be it movie, book or game; .hack was a franchise at conception.  It lunged squarely into the market as a series of four RPG games (each packaged with an episode of an anime OVA on DVD), a manga book series and a 26 episode anime on TV.  Though each stood as a standalone product with its own story, all took place in the same setting.

Background

The year is 2007.  It’s the future!  It is a time where a catastrophic computer virus, that all but shut down the world’s digital infrastructure only two years prior, is still fresh in people’s minds.  To prevent a repeat of events, a United Nations branch, titled the World Network Commission (WNC), stepped in and began imposing regulations on the Internet.  The one operating system unaffected by the virus, ALTIMIT OS, becomes mandatory to connect online, giving a single corporation a monopoly over the Internet.

Obviously, nothing could possibly go wrong with this idea.

The first online game to be released since the disaster is a MMORPG named “The World”.  The quotes are mandatory.  Everyone in the franchise says it with such pause and emphasis that I feel compelled to use air quotes every time I hear it.  Being the only online game in existence now, it sells 20 million copies and becomes an instant hit.  Starve ‘em and they’ll eat anything.

But not all is well in (pause) “The World”.

.hack – The Game(s)

For this article, I’ll be focusing on the first four games in the series, which combine to form a single adventure.  That’s: .hack//Infection, .hack//Mutation, .hack//Outbreak, and .hack//Quarantine.  Colloquially, they are often jointly referred to as .hack//IMOQ.  These games play together more like a single multi-disk game than individual games.  When you complete a game, that save can be imported into the next part, keeping all of your items, experience and progress, right down to the amount of time you’ve been playing.  It’s much like what Nintendo did around the same time with their two-part RPG for the Gameboy Advanced, Golden Sun, albeit with much less cable and password induced migraine.

Story

You take on the role of an 8th grade boy who is just being introduced to “The World” by your friend, Yasuhiko, who just happens to be one of the two top players in the game — not a bad hookup.  Orca, Yasuhiko’s Level 50 avatar of awesome, takes your newb self to a newb dungeon for a quick tutorial.

But, while spending hours getting power-leveled through content by your high-level friend would be an accurate simulation of the MMO experience, it would make for a boring RPG.  So, things go south, a freakish golem with a red staff blasts glitchy bits at Orca and puts the real life Yasuhiko into a mysterious coma.  Soon, your character acquires the very power used on your friend, granting you the ability to defeat viruses and access secure locations.  Only you possess the means to solve this mystery.

What follows is an 80 hour epic, spanning 4 games, in which the fate of the world and “The World” will ultimately rest upon your shoulders.  What at first seems like an isolated indecent blossoms into a web of mystery and intrigue.  You’ll make friends, defeat viruses and possibly raise a few French cow-pig-thing abominations of nature.

If you’re dipping into .hack for story alone, you might be a little disappointed.  The story isn’t bad — quite the opposite.  There just isn’t 4 games worth of story content there.

They do a good job leaving each individual game feeling episodic.  I finished each feeling the characters had accomplished something and that the stakes had been raised for the next game.  Each resolution brings with it new questions, escalating the tension right up until the very end.  Taken entirely by itself, the story paces pretty well.  When you insert the gameplay into the equation, not so much.  It starts to feel like it’s dragging on at times.  You also tend to get most of the meaningful bits in dense chunks, usually towards the beginning and end of each game, leaving the middle as a barren wasteland of repetitious dungeon grind.

The characters are also rather flat and usually not very likable.  You accumulate a friends list, much as you would in a real MMO, and can call on them to fill your two free party member slots.  Their personalities are generally meant to reflect the kind of people you might casually encounter online.  The ditsy housewife, the abrasive jerk, the well meaning but clueless newbie, the greedy… goofy… bossy… needy… self-absorbed — I think you get the idea.  The cast of .hack are largely defined by their flaws and obsessions.  While that can be a valid and effective form of characterization, it falls flat in this context.  Only a few even have any actual involvement or motivation related to your quest.  The rest just hang around because you occasionally do things for them.  It fails to give that sense that we’re a ragtag band of misfits brought together by friendship and a mutual goal they seemed to expect you to feel in the final stretch of the game.

Mechanically Speaking

As a creative setting .hack is unique beyond praise.  We’ll get to that in a minute, but every compliment sandwich needs its nauseating center.  As a dungeon crawler, it is monotonous, clunky and often frustrating.  There is good to be had.  I can’t completely pan it, though it certainly deserves any panning I can offer it.

First, almost no changes or additions were made to the engine between games.  All four play virtually identically.  Aside from higher level monsters, the continuation of the story and another OVA DVD, you essentially paid for the same game four times.

Oh the places you will go

This wouldn’t really be so bad, if new dungeons meant new content.  The dungeons and fields that make up your adventuring turf revolve around the Chaos Gate.  As you play, you’ll accumulate words for the Chaos Gate.  A collection of three words put into the gate generates a field.  The words decide traits such as difficulty level, monster types, and layout.  With a few exceptions, all fields are flat, barren maps, speckled with monsters and random bits of aesthetic architectural.  There’s also usually an entrance to a dungeon, with several levels of rooms connected in a seemingly randomly generated manner.

This is where the monotony begins.  Fields and dungeons are not randomly generated.  If you use the same three words in the chaos gate, you’ll get the exact same field and dungeon every time.  However, the only things that separate one dungeon from another are how the same few room types are connected in a different manner with different monsters.  It has the same blandness as a randomly generated dungeon.

There are aesthetic differences.  You may get a fire field with a stonewalled dungeon.  You could get a snowy field and a crypt-like dungeon.  You could end up in a swampy field with a dungeon that looks like the inside of a giant creature.  This serves to ensure you’re not looking at the same colors hour after hour, but it does nothing to make them feel different.  In a sense, you have literally thousands of places to adventure, yet it feels like you only have one.

The monsters add some level of variety, but they resort to recoloring and recycling the same ones over again way too quickly.

Fight!

I go both ways when it comes to .hack combat.  While combat is realtime, allowing you to move and attack freely, the vast majority of what you need to do is layered in menu hell.  Want to cast a fire spell?  Turn the camera towards your target, walk into range, press triangle, choose “Skills”, move over to the magic tab, scroll down to the fire spell, choose it, then choose your target.  Oh wait, your fire spell is on your other pair of gloves.  All spells and skills are on items rather than learned by the character.  So, press triangle, go to “Equipment”, move right until you see your gloves, scroll down to the fire gloves, choose them, back out, choose “Skills”, move over to the magic tab… You get the idea.  This menu-heavy process is necessary to do almost everything.  Let’s not forget your two AI-controlled allies, who are a special kind of stupid.  They won’t even use their skills until you give them the okay.  And they have to be given permission every. single. fight.  You could also micromanage their skill usage, if you’re that kind of menu masochist.

Sometimes I had to be that masochist.  My allies would be shouting to me, “darkness enemies are weak against lighting!” all while casting everything except their lightning spell, including ones the enemy is immune to… repeatedly.  Sadly, there is no “run away from the enemy that can kill you in two hits” option in the menu.  Your squishy spell casters will die.  They will die a lot.  This is made all the more frustrating when you find yourself chasing down enemy spell casters who will happily kite you clear across the map.  At some point in developing the game, the programmers decided to make the monsters smarter than the supposedly “player controlled” characters.

I guess they wanted to truly capture the frustration of playing a MMORPG with other people online.  Mission accomplished.

Resource Management

One thing that took me a very long time to figure out in .hack, and part of why I kept putting it down back in the day, was the need to use your items.  I lost many, many times trying to cast a healing spell, only to have me or my target die before I could finish casting it.  Healing potions, however, activate instantly.  Conditions, such as confusion (a very, very annoying condition) and poison are extremely common, sometimes happening several times per fight.  The death of party members even becomes common place by the end of the series, forcing me to chug resurrects like water.  Keeping stocked up on restorative, buffing and offensive items is mandatory, as is managing them and knowing the appropriate times to use them.  It was very difficult for me to break away from the traditional RPG mentality that consumables existed purely for the tougher boss fights.

While it’s something that took getting used to, it’s also something I grew to like.  You don’t get to carry a lot of different types of items with you, and that space has to be used for all of your consumables, spare equipment (remember, spells come from equipment and can be changed out mid-fight) and any loot you find mid-dungeon.  Customizing your item load-out is just as important as any character customization.  Your potions and scrolls have to complement your abilities, cover your weaknesses and meet your recovery demands, while still leaving you enough space to rob that tomb blind.  Coming from other games, many regard it as an arbitrary and frustration limitation.  If you decide to play .hack, do yourself a favor and see it for the strategy factor that it is.

.hack as a Narrative Experience

While the story of .hack//IMOQ is an interesting bit of intrigue and mystery, it’s not so great as to earn itself a page in the history books through sheer plot quality.  What makes it so memorable occurs on a much more ambient level.  .hack makes strides in placing you in its world.  The first thing you see when starting the game isn’t “The World”, but rather your ALTIMA OS desktop.  From here, you can start up “The World”, or you can read news feeds, your emails, or check out the game’s forums.

The level of interactivity with these social mediums is unfortunately minimal, but they still serve to feed you the environment on a variety of levels.  Not everything you read has to do with your actions either.  You’ll get a news story about a new piece of technology that came out, and people will discuss it on the forums as a result.  Some of the setting are results of things that happened in the anime or the manga.  If you watch the OVA DVDs, you’ll see events occur parallel with yours.  .hack effectively creates a feeling of vastness in its world, purely through its various stories and environmental touches.

I find this serves as a unique and interesting framing device.  With the exception of the OVA DVDs, everything takes place online.  You’re given a window into a world, almost entirely through the eyes of a game.  At times, I found myself taking a step back.  I’d look at the reactions of the characters and the plans we were taking.  Sometimes, you can’t help but laugh.  Our plan to save our friends in a coma is to power-level and fight bad things in a game?  By the end, I’d met hackers and system admins.  I don’t suppose any thought to just hack me a level 99 character.  I’m saving the world here.  But silliness aside, I deeply admire the creativity at work here.  Just the meta of playing a game within a game is enough to play with your mind.

A Slice of Future and Past

One story I encountered in my news feed discussed the debate over banning smoking cigarettes in public places.  The debate even spilled over into “The World”‘s forums.  It was at that moment that I realized something.  The games came out starting in 2002 and take place in 2007.  It now being 2012, the game’s predicted future has effectively become our past and some things speculated in it have already come to pass.  Smoking has been banned in public places in many states and countries since then.

Likewise, not everything shaped up as expected.  The MMORPG market was young in 2002.  Games like EverQuest and Dark Age of Camelot were still new, and World of Warcraft didn’t even exist yet.  The gameplay of .hack//IMOQ was designed to mimic what they thought a MMORPG would be in 5 years.  Content wasn’t near as objective-based as we find in today’s games.  MMOs were very much social sandboxes of random things to kill, and .hack reflects an alternate evolution of that.

.hack also plays with some interesting themes for its day.  September 11, 2001 was not even a year old when the game hit Japanese shelves in June of 2002.  North America got their version 8 months later.  Likewise, the .hack world is in the wake a world-altering terrorist attack and in the process of recovery and reform.  It deals with themes of conspiracy, false feelings of security and a government unable to properly protect its people.  Questions such as what is an acceptable punishment for a convicted terrorist are weaved throughout.  Digging a little deeper into the game’s world can provide an unsettling mirror back at ours.

The historical perspective of .hack is perhaps what left me the most enriched by the end.  It is both amusing and haunting and well deserving of a page in gaming history.

A page that would be slightly less tarnished, were it not for gate hacking.  Gate hacking can die in a fire!

I seem to have ruined my compliment sandwich.

The Gaming Grind

Has been a while since posting.  Things are simmering on the burner, but for the moment, I had to share a forum post that made my day over at GW2Guru.

 

From the post Game is more “Diablo” than GW or WoW.. by BloatedGuppy, on the topic of defining “grind” in the context of gaming and a claim that Guild Wars 2 was “grindy”:

No, it isn’t. This is a nonsense word. It used to mean something, like 12, 14 years ago. Now it’s a completely nonsense word. It means absolutely nothing at all.

Today I woke up and ground my way out of bed after grinding sleep for 8 hours. I ground through breakfast and then ground my way into work. I’ll grind through my day here, maybe taking some time outs to grind on the internet and grind through lunch. Then I’ll grind home, grind through dinner, maybe grind through a book, and then grind out some love makin’ with the GF. What a grind!

The word “grind” now supposes the ONLY REASON ANYONE DOES ANYTHING is progression. The only thing we exist for is the little stat bumps. Everything else is a grind. Crafting? Grind? Exploring? Grind. PvP? Grind. PvE? Grind. Events? Grind. Dungeons? Grind. This is not sarcasm, I have quite literally heard all of these things described as a grind. Some of them by players UNDER LEVEL 10.

Get to level 80? Get some bloody perspective. Go play Classic Everquest. Go sit on a hill for 24 hours, killing Tumps. Nothing but Tumps. Tumps, Tumps, Tumps. Kill a Tump, sit down for 20 minutes and LOOK AT YOUR SPELLBOOK while getting mana back. Then kill more Tumps. No events. No quests. No exploring. Just Tumps. You’re in a hell level, by the way, you’ll be doing this for several weeks.

Then come back here and tell me the event you did was a “grind” because you had to do it a few times. Oh noes, what a grind. WHAT A LOATHSOME GRIND.

I had to click the mouse button to shoot this guy, I’m grinding!
I had to turn the wheel to go around the track, I’m grinding!
I had to tap the button to jump over this turtle, I’m grinding!

Grinding, grinding, grinding, oh the grind! Oh, who will save us from this terrible grind!

 

As the issue pressed on, BloatedGuppy continues:

You have identified two problems.

1. Everyone has come to define grind differently. This is the fundamental definition of a useless word. If we cannot agree on a common meaning, or even a colloquially accepted common meaning, then the word ceases to mean anything at all. At best, it has come to mean “something I don’t like”, which…yeah.

2. If anyone is ever doing ANYTHING that they find patently tedious or the anti-thesis of fun in a video game for the purposes of “progression”, then they are intellectually handicapped in an extremely alarming fashion. ESPECIALLY if said person thinks the game play itself is tedious. What are you progressing towards? More tedium? The very concept of it echoes with such brute force stupidity it beggars the imagination.

The same applies to anyone who has ever described something they’ve done in a video game as “hard work” as well. “I deserve to be rewarded for all my hard work!”. There are truly not enough palms for all the faces to be placed into.

 

Amen!  #2 is my favorite.  It rings an eye opening bell at the current state of gaming.

 

That’s the extent of what I really wanted to share, but if you will allow it, I’ll ramble on a near tangent for a bit as well.

Positive reinforcement is vital in a game.  Without affirmation of success, there is no success.  Without success, there is no goal.  Without a goal, there is nothing to play towards.

Imagine a game of Pong.  There are the paddles and the little square ball that bounces around the screen.  However, this Pong game has no score.  It has no goals.  The ball just bounces around the screen, deflecting off of your paddles if they happen to get in the way.

If your first reaction is to realize you have a working Magnavox Odyssey, albeit missing most of its accessories, and are totally stoked, you get 5 geek cred points.

Everyone else would realize that this isn’t much of a game.  You could make a game out of it, but this bouncing block simulator is not one, in and of itself.  There is something within our human minds that cannot simply be content with just bouncing a ball for long.  We’ll begin setting goals or challenges.  We’ll begin measuring and scoring.  Through measure and goals comes achievement, and through achievement comes sweet, sweet dopamine.

That is the premise behind gamification — the act of applying these game measurements to non-game things — which is becoming bloody huge in and outside of the industry.  Take, for example, Fitocracy.  Fitocracy is a fitness social networking site that encourages not being a fat, bloated sloth by applying points, levels and achievements to basic fitness activities.  What?  Exercise so I don’t die of a heart-attack at the age of 36?  No thanks, I’ll have pie instead.  Achievements?!  100 Push-ups!  Such a blunt, abusive blow of psychology to the skull is a marvelous sight.

A concern is that this is, indeed, being horribly abused.  (Okay, so tricking someone into putting down the Twinkie long enough to do a sit-up might not classify as “abusive”.)  The gambling industry has been manipulating this little bit of human nature for as long as we’ve had shiny rocks to wager away.  Gambling addiction is a serious problem for some people.  People scoff that gaming addiction isn’t a real thing, and I see there points.  But then you look at the kinds of games to which people are becoming addicted.

Hint: It’s not Tetris.  And Tetris is damn fun and addicting.

No, it’s these MMORPGs and little social clicky games.  They’re sometimes games with some of the simplest levels of interaction.  They’re experiences that thrive on operant conditioning through positive reinforcement, just like gambling.  It’s not “good job, you did well; now try and do better” but rather “good job, you played; now play more and you’ll get rewarded again in a bit”.  Or, god forbit, “good job, you played; btw, I’ll say ‘good job’ again for $1″.  Take a step back, and the mental image of some kind of digital, cerebral prostitute starts to form.

Am I saying that this is bad and not real game making?  In general, no.  I’ll be the first to say that game developers should take every opportunity to understand and use human psychology to better their game design.  It’s why RPG elements and achievements are finding their way into every other genre.  It’s powerful positive reinforcement and, if used well, can enhance the game experience.  Where I begin to see the crags get rocky is the realization that game developers are leaning a little heavier on these mental tricks and backsliding game design towards that of highly polished slot machines.  There’s money to be had that direction.  It’s easy to abuse for profit.

I’m basically saying that if games were paintings and operant conditioning were a color of paint, we’d be in Picasso’s Blue Period right now.

And by Picasso, I possibly mean Zynga.

The Guild Wars 2 PvP Debate

There’s been a fairly heated debate going on in the various GW2 forums ever since the first beta weekend.  It has to do with the “downed” mechanic and what it means to the flow of player versus player combat.

Some love it.  Some hate it.

I know some readers wander in here from other MMOs, so I’ll lay it out in such a way that you can all form an opinion.

The Downed Mechanic

It is rather easy to run out of health in GW2.  Players are generally fragile creatures.  But running out of health is not the end of your life.  When brought down, you enter a downed state.  In this state, you have only 4 abilities, you are immobilized on the ground and a health bar splashed across the screen gradually ticks down.

In PvP combat, a number of things can happen from this point.

  • Any damage you take will speed the decay of your health bar.  When it is empty, you are defeated.
  • If you can contribute towards defeating another player (not just downing them), you rally and are revived back into the fight.
  • In the event that nothing is going on, you can gradually revive yourself, but any damage you take ends the attempt, so it won’t usually work in the middle of a fight.
  • An ally can come over to you and give up all other actions to try and revive you himself.  It takes a bit of time to do so.
  • Lastly, an enemy can walk over to you and execute a finishing move that will defeat you.  This takes a couple seconds to execute and can be interrupted.

The 1v2 Scenario

The most common example against this system is its impact on a one versus two fight.  Let’s say a single player is guarding a location.  Two enemy players decide to try and capture the location together. Luckily, this single player is much more skilled than the other two.  Here is a sample play-by-play of the choices the defender has to make.

  • The skirmish begins.
  • The Solo Defender quickly downs Attacker A.  Attacker A is now in a downed state.  He can still attack, but is much less effective.
  • If Solo Defender attempts to finish Attacker A, he leaves himself exposed to damage for a couple seconds.  In that time, Attacker B may use an interrupting ability to break the attempt, forcing Solo Defender to start over and try again.
  • If Solo Defender ignores Attacker A, he will revive himself and re-enter the fight.
  • It is sub-optimal for Solo Defender to continue focusing damage on Attacker A in an attempt to finish him that way.  Attacker B is now the more damaging threat.
  • To win, Solo Defender must down both Attacker A and Attacker B then finish them while being attacked the entire time.
  • If Attacker B downs and finishes off Solo Defender, Attacker A will rally back, leaving both to take the objective.
  • If the scenario happens that all three of them are downed, Solo Defender is unlikely to win the ensuing “slap fight” of downed abilities.

I have seen this scenario inflated.  1v3.  5v15 (in the case of World vs World PvP).  In every case, the argument is that it diminishes the meaningfulness of personal skill, because it is very difficult to finish a downed opponent while you are outnumbered.

And So On and So Forth

To pull a few more objections, I went here:

  • “It promotes zerging.”
    That is to say, rushing an objective with a large force guarantees success, in spite of any other tactical or skill concerns.
  • “Kills don’t feel like kills. Stomps [(aka, execution/finishing moves)] don’t feel like kills either since they don’t require skill (just press F).”
    There is a visceral satisfaction in quickly demolishing an opponent.  Ending an opponent in GW2 will always be a two-part, elongated process.
  • “It punishes players who prefer to play only ranged”.
    A ranged player will need to close in if they wish to finish the kill quickly, since executions only work in melee.
  • “Killing someone and seeing a team member swoosh in and take the stomp [is frustrating].”
    Kill stealing isn’t exactly a new concept in most gaming genres.  However, GW2 puts a flag up begging for it to happen.  If a player can be finished off, people will rush in to do so, indifferent of who got them into that state in the first place.
  • “Fights between 2 downed players where they throw rocks at each other for 30 seconds (so much fun).”
    That would be the aforementioned “slap fight”.  This tends to happen in 1v1 situations where things are very close.  If one player downs another with only a tiny bit of health left, the downed player is likely to get the first downed as well.  You then have two lone players tossing weak desperation moves at each other until one wins out.

My Thoughts?

This is just my take.  Don’t take this as divine word.  (Note: I’m just placating those of you who might disagree.  Of course I’m always right.  I have a blog on the Internet!)

I think we can make a lot of headway by getting the aggressive comment out of the way first.

Get over yourselves.

Ego Check, Plz

“I’m the more skilled player, but I can’t win in 1v2.”  Apparently, you’re not as wonderful as you think.  Want to finish a player you have downed without the second player interrupting?  How about disabling the other player first?  Dazes only last a second, but a second will do you.  Knock him down.  Give yourself a Stability buff so it’s harder for you to be interrupted.  But of course, you knew that already, because you’re so skilled!

You’re not.  You can’t make the argument that “a skilled player can’t do this” when your idea of being skilled completely disregards a game mechanic.  “I’m really skilled at Super Mario Bros., except Hammer Brothers kick my ass.”  Then you’re not skilled at Mario!  That’s the whole point of becoming skilled at the game.  You don’t become skilled by changing the game until it matches your current capabilities.  I have a device that does that for Super Mario Bros.  It’s called a Game Genie.  We call it cheating.

Yes, it’s going to be hard to win in a 1v2 situation.  Downright unlikely.  That’s because there are two of them.  How much better do you really think you are than everyone else at a game you’ve gotten to play for 3 weekends?  The community egos right now are completely out of check and its hindering productive discussion.  It’s really hard to take points seriously when the main argument is “it doesn’t make me feel better than everyone else.”

A Team Effort

Now another question.  While you are fighting in this 1v2, what is going on in the rest of the map?  I, personally, have not won many skirmishes against two other players.  I’ve never won a skirmish against three opponents.

However, I have won entire matches by fighting multiple opponents.

When I’m tied up alone against multiple opponents, I go on the defensive.  I pop in and out.  I keep on the pressure.  I keep the fight going as long as I can.  If I down someone, I don’t finish them (not that I could if I wanted to).  Because while I’m locked up with three other players, that means I have four other teammates out there using that power play to cut a swath of destruction through the remaining two opponents.

Skilled opponents will take me down sooner than later.  As well they should; there’s three of them.  Still, such fights do not exist in a vacuum.

Simply put, being a lone-wolf cowboy in a team-based game isn’t being good at the game.  “I’m so good I can kill multiple people by myself” is not a sound team strategy and you shouldn’t be rewarded for thinking that way.  If you’re complaining that someone is taking your kills, you might just be missing the point.

Downing doesn’t feel like a kill because it isn’t.

I don’t know that this is a “problem”, but it is a legitimate matter of taste.  There is a very methodical quality to killing in GW2.  You tear down your opponent’s health then “re-kill” them in their downed state.

I put “re-kill” in quotes for two reasons.  First, I don’t think it’s a real word.  I kind of just made it up.  I do that sometimes.  Second, it’s wholly inappropriate for the situation.  A downed opponent is not dead.  You have not succeeded in their elimination yet.  Your efforts are meaningful but not final.  The job still has yet to be finished.  If you are killed and the downed opponent rallies back to his feet, that’s because he was never dead to begin with.

In any other MMO, you would not consider an opponent defeated if you stunned him and left him at 1 hit point.  It’s no different here.

This makes ending an opponent a very deliberate activity.  It certainly isn’t fair to complain that “pressing F” takes no skill, yet complain how difficult it can be to actually achieve this finisher.  It can be easy or it can be challenging.  There’s a meta-game to the whole affair.  Do I need some form of defense to execute this kill unmolested?  Will his allies try to save him?  Can I capitalize on it if they do?

But is it bad?

I feel a whole topic of “what is bad game design” coming on, so I’m going to hold up here.

In short, I feel the mechanic accomplishes what it aims to accomplish.  There are those who are not going to enjoy that goal.  I can’t stand castle defense games, but I respect a good one mechanically.  But if there is someone out there that truly believes this mechanic is bad on a level with “poor camera controls” or “sloppy quick time events”, and not just against your personal tastes, I’d be curious to hear the nitty gritty of it.

Include supporting facts and examples of similar failures in other games, please.

We’re academics here.

Title Get: Gamer!

I was just reading the recent post by beloved friend, the Bossy Pally: Obtaining and Using the Title “Gamer”.  Recommended read.  Rather than simply leave a comment, I felt the desire to explore the topic as well.

Title Get!

I feel she covered the concepts of elitism and competition quite aptly, so I will move towards the posed question: “So, what, to you, makes someone A Gamer? And, more importantly, does it matter?”

Firstly, I thought, “am I a gamer?” and “do I think others regard me as a gamer?”

The first one is obvious.  I’m definitely a gamer, in terms of my own self-identity.

Why?

Well, I’ve been playing games since my Atari 2600 and Commodore 64, which I put a great deal of hours into.  I currently own 16 unique consoles with roughly 600 games between them.  I also built my own PC that is at least powerful enough to play any popular game currently on the market and it is used for such.  I derive part of my self-identity and self-esteem from my knowledge and love of my older consoles.  Especially obscure and forgotten games.  I have distinct “retro cred”, at least in my own eyes.

Do I think others regard me as a gamer?  Strangely so.  There is something oddly omnipresent about the retro console scene that is recognizable gaming-wide.  It is specific to consoles, even though many of the more popular games were available elsewhere.  For whatever reason, the retro computing scene did not get the same lasting impression.  Perhaps consoles are more associated with the widely known arcade titles of the day or they were simply more accessible for the common consumer.  I can’t just go anywhere and discuss the merits of Silkworm as a game, but Super Mario Bros., Tetris and Pac-Man are a free passport into almost any gaming community.

So who else is a gamer?

Yeup.  I am awesome.  That is not in dispute.  But am I where I set bar for the title Gamer?  That does seem to be the trend.  You must have accomplished at least X feat in order to qualify as a Gamer, because I did.  It’s definite elitism.  Did you defeat Kil’jaeden prior to the release of the Wrath of the Lich King expansion for World of Warcraft?  Do you have as many achievement points as I do?  How many Magic the Gathering cards do you own?  Our definition of “Gamer” tends to be a narcissistic comparison to our own accomplishments.  We need to deny people the title to give it worth above our own heads.

Such criteria setting quickly falls apart in application.  I’m reminded of Sony’s show, The Tester.  Season 3 brought on the Internet-acclaimed Arin Hanson (aka Egoraptor).  In episode 1, he was grilled and judged harshly for his lack of PS3 Trophies (the PS3′s achievement system).  The man produces his own series that focuses on thinking critically about game design, called Sequelitis.  His involvement in and contribution to the gaming community is well known.  Yet (probably for the sake of ratings and shock value), they felt obligated to find some criteria by which to deny him the title of Gamer.

So, who do I call a Gamer?

Anyone who says they are.

Everyone’s a Gamer?

Everyone claiming to be a Gamer is a Gamer.

I don’t simply mean that for some politically correct, love-and-peace reason.  Everyone who plays and buys games impacts your gaming experience, no matter how removed they are from your interests or accomplishments.  The people making games want to sell their games.  The people calling themselves Gamers want to buy games.  If you deny someone the title of Gamer, that doesn’t change that their dollar is going to influence the types of games you get to play tomorrow.

Elitism doesn’t pay a programmer.  Consumerism does.

If a game can be described with the words “freemium”, “social” or “X defense”, chances are I loathe it with such bile as would make the denizens of hell blush.  I find much of that social/casual scene to be more experiments in exploiting human psychology for money than anything I’d call a game.  Would I consider people who play only these kinds of phone and facebook games to be Gamers?

Yes!

It is actually important that I acknowledge them as Gamers, because their influence is heavily swaying the entire market right now.  They are pouring money by the barrel into their little Skinner boxes.  To say they are not Gamers is a very “head in the sand” approach to the direction the market is headed.

“So, what, to you, makes someone A Gamer?”

Being a contributing (e.g., financial or social) influence upon the gaming market.

“And, more importantly, does it matter?”

I’m not going to say what I think matters absolutely.  But yes, I do believe that acknowledging the influences on your passion is important.  No gaming sub-community exists in a vacuum.  Nothing about gaming is an island, removed from all other elements of the world.  Like all artistic mediums, it is flexible and impressionable.  Its growth depends on it.

You can exclude them.  You can insult them.  You can deny any common ground exists between you and them.  They will cheerfully charge forward and decide your gaming future without you.