Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Witcher: What's the big deal?

So having played a bit of The Witcher after purchasing it on Steam a while ago, I'm struggling to see what all the fuss is about. I've read numerous arguments that The Witcher is better than Dragon Age, and how it's much more dark, mature and gritty, with better choices, and more besides. Maybe I'm not far enough into the game, but I'm afraid I'm really not seeing it. Admittedly, I'm only part way through Chapter 1, but I have to confess that playing the game is a real struggle. That's not just because of the fairly annoying and boring combat. There are some fairly other key design factors that annoy me.

The "maturity" of the game is one thing that proponents of The Witcher constantly push. This aspect is something that I really can't agree with, as The Witcher is only mature if you interpret maturity in the crudest possible sense. Having characters swear frequently using what are considered the most offensive profanities in English is not mature, it's just a cheap shot to provide a shock attraction. I think the people who declare the swearing a demonstration of the game's maturity don't understand how artificial and incongruous it is to have someone drop obscenities over trivial matters. I'm not against swearing in games, but if the emotional investment of a character doesn't match their language, I consider it nothing more than a pathetic attempt to convince people that the game is mature. It's not merely bad acting, it's bad writing, and the game seems juvenile as a result. As for the "sex cards" you get from "romancing" the various females in the game, well, the less said the better. Adding gratuituous and meaningless sex is worse than swearing. (I could continue, but I don't want the whole post to turn into a complain about this subject)

Apparently this represents maturity in gaming

There's also the issue of choice. Now, maybe this is a result of not having played enough of the game, but I haven't really felt that challenged by the choices so far, nor felt that they particularly mattered that much. Maybe as I progress further into the game, I'll see delayed effects of those decisions. I've been told that does happen in The Witcher, which might go some way towards fixing that problem. Perhaps I'm being a little harsh here, as I like the idea of being forced to pick between two choices where neither seems to be better than the other, and The Witcher does seem to do that. However, it just feels that the presentation of these decisions is lacking, as it's not like Alpha Protocol where I actually cared about the small decisions. I think the issue is that either there doesn't seem to be a whole lot at stake when it comes to making a choice, or I have no personal involvement and am not really invested in the decision as a character.

However, the point where I really have to take issue with the game is its dialogue, because it really is ordinary. Yes, I understand that the game's developers are not native English speakers, but The Witcher really struggles in this department. I'll say upfront that I don't like Geralt's personality, but the whole issue of having a pre-set character is not something that particularly bothers me in a game - I can deal with it provided that I have some control over them. However... in The Witcher, I don't. Many conversations are lengthy cutscenes, where it is Geralt and an NPC (or NPCs) talking back and forth without any interaction from me. Having a conversation of a half a dozen to a dozen lines without any input from me simply because I clicked on an NPC is not something I appreciate. Take this example of a dwarven blacksmith. Geralt and he exchange greetings, then have an extended chat about the hatred for non-humans, leaving me to watch while Geralt does the talking.

A cutscene... err, I mean conversation, from the game

When you do actually get to control the conversation, you have fairly limited conversation options at your disposal, and the characters seem to just spout exposition at you as opposed to engaging in "real" dialogue. Even worse, many conversations will also automatically continue in an exchange like the one described above without additional input beyond your first dialogue choice! This further enforces the reality that you're "watching" the game rather than "playing" it. Finally, there's the issue where I can anger an NPC to the point that they won't talk to me again simply from picking one wrong dialogue choice, and it's not even clear that I am saying something particularly offensive. Feeling I have to save before every conversation just in case I happen to say the wrong thing is a clear indication of a terrible implementation of conversation trees. Again, taking the example of the dwarf above, it's possible for me to ask him if he trades with these people he mentions. Suddenly he swears at me (there's that "maturity" again) and then refuses to talk to me at all.

*beep* Wrong answer! One permanently annoyed NPC coming up.

Regardless, I'll still attempt to persevere with The Witcher. I just can't see how it is getting so much praise for being such a great game when all I'm seeing is a mostly stale experience. A stale experience in a potentially interesting setting, mind you, it's just that the game doesn't seem to deliver anything to do justice to what appears to be a well-developed world.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Level Scaling - Alternatives and Issues

In this final post, I'll discuss some of the means for implementing scaling apart from pure level scaling.  I must firstly recommend this post from a friend discussing level scaling and leveling in a very original fashion. It's definitely a novel approach that I'm very interested in.

But sticking within the conventional realms of the "standard" RPG, we're a little more hamstrung by the currently accepted mechanics. So what else can be done besides pure level scaling?

Scaling by Number
Instead of making enemies more powerful, let's just make more of them! This might sound like a good idea, but generally it's not that useful except to make the player feel as though they are really powerful. Weakling monsters, even in numbers, do not pose a threat to high level heroes. They simply won't do enough damage, won't hit, or be killed too quickly. Imagine your party of adventurers from Baldur's Gate 2 being swarmed by a thousand gibberlings. The warriors would kill several each round automatically because the creatures would be such a low level, and mages could obliterate hordes at a time with a few cloudkill spells. Of course, I've picked an exaggerated example here, but the principle is the same. Unless the weak monsters are made more powerful, it's possible that they won't be dangerous anyway.

Dynasty Warriors lives by the ethos "The more the merrier"

Also, as noted previously, there's the consideration of the comparative difficulty of a battle based on plot considerations, which is something that level scaling destroys. However, if scaling is done by number instead of level, then this problem isn't avoided anyway. If doesn't level up, but instead has a small army at his disposal, that's no less ridiculous than him being more powerful than a previous enemy. Arbitrarily increasing the number of enemies is no less plot/realism breaking than increasing the level of the enemies if the overall effect of retaining difficulty is the same.  Plot considerations and the "reality" of the game world both have to take a hit to prevent player boredom from having ridiculously easy encounters in a non-linear game. The only possible means to rectify that would be to have dialogue/descriptions change based on a players level as well. This would be an inordinate amount of a work and I'm afraid I'd have to strongly say it would be a complete waste of time.

The last point about increasing monster army sizes is a technical one. Each monster that is on screen requires both extra processing from the graphics card and the CPU to calculate and display their actions. If you have too many monsters, the game is going to slow down and become jerky and unresponsive. Bad performance is something that earns terrible ire from both reviewers and gamers, so much like boredom, it must be avoided at all costs.

Partial/Variant Scaling
In Mass Effect 1, higher difficulty levels introduced more scaling of enemies. However, this simply increased enemy hit points significantly, but this didn't increase the difficulty at all.  But, the thing that it did right was that scaling was performed relative to an enemy's own "power". That is to say, at lower levels, only bosses were scaled, then sub-bosses, then standard enemies.  By implementing a system that applies scaling using a multiplier against an enemy's "difficulty" or "ranking", you can provide a more even distribution of power.

Colour coded badness

Now, Dragon Age does attempt to do this, but I still don't think it succeeds entirely. In order to make the scaling a little more organic, I believe there should be some degree of randomness introduced into the system. All "grunt" enemies should not be created equal, not should all "sub-bosses" and so forth. Unless we're talking about unique creatures that should have a consistent(ly high) power level, the game engine should allow for some randomness in the difficulty of each creature, so that the difficulty of "standard" fights throughout an area varies. This is both more interesting and fun for the player, as each fight won't play out exactly the same.

Ability Scaling
Instead of simply making enemies more powerful by giving them hitpoints or making them do more damage, how about making them behave differently?  Note that I'm not talking about modifying AI here, as that is a horrendous task. Making decent AI is difficult enough, but then modifying it as the game continues is a nightmare, not to mention, what possible cause is there for the enemies to continually become smarter? (Yes, I'm sure you can think of a "logical" plot device to do so)

So giving enemies new powers or techniques for attack the enemy is one way of mixing up the difficulty of combat. This may even come down to things that force the player to adopt/use new tactics based on the items/skills they have acquired in their adventures. One option would be to implement resistances on enemies, forcing players to use items like poisons, traps or more powerful spells in order to deal (sufficient) damage to them.  Or perhaps environmental issues could be used, e.g. spawning more traps in an area for higher level parties.

Bigger and badder spiders should have bigger and badder webs

Dedicated/Multi-part Scaling
As was suggested in a comment in my first post on this subject, another means is to specifically cater for the various points at which the player can encounter a fight.  Now, this is a great suggestion, as it offers the potential for offering customised encounters without the bland approach of standard scaling.  Unfortunately, it can be very time consuming.  Dedicated scaling is a manual process, going through a modifying all the basic elements of an encounter based on the level of the character. Balancing multiple factors via an algorithm while taking into consideration plot issues is typically not something that can be done algorithmically (at least not easily) so it comes down to a designer to edit them all by hand.

One of the boss encounters I created for my NWN2 module Fate of a City was customised based upon the level of the player and their party members (if any). This was probably one of the most difficult (if not the most difficult) and time consuming fights to balance in the entire 10-15 hour module. This was because I was changing the power, level, abilities and number of enemies based on those factors. Dealing with all those different variables meant working out what was reasonable and what was not took a lot of trial and error.

A boss from Fate of a City, possibly alone, possibly with friends.

Going through that process for multiple boss fights, not to mention minor encounters, across an even wider range of levels is not something I would particularly want to attempt. The tradeoff is that it potentially offers the best opportunity to provide a consistently difficult and interesting challenge, but the amount of time spent performing iterations of design and playtesting mean that it is largely infeasible except for very special encounters.

For better or worse, I haven't strayed too far from the "conventional" means of increasing difficulty in battles. Ultimately, combat in RPGs comes down to some sort of equation, and we have a limited means to play with the numbers in that equation. If we can have mechanics that remove the simple number aspect and require a little more from the player like the unpredictability of players in a FPS, or the varied strategies used in an RTS, then perhaps we could begin to experiment a little more liberally with our scaling options.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Level Scaling - Design Considerations

After debating the need for scaled encounters and also pointing out the drawbacks of level scaling, it is time to raise some of the other game design factors that need to be considered when talking about scaled encounters.

One of the major points I made while advocating the need for level scaling was the issue of creating non-linear games. But I imagine some might put forward the argument that some games with somewhat linear paths didn't or don't always put in you in areas where you could easily defeat all the enemies. For example, Ultima Underworld 2. The game isn't entirely linear - as the game progresses, you gain access to a couple of new worlds at a time, allowing you to pick any of them to progress the plot. And even in linear sections, such as the castle basement/sewers, you can quite easily come across monsters far too powerful for you to defeat.  I'll also get the Baldur's Gate argument here as well.

It's a family reunion of giant green bugs. Yuck.

The thing is, I can concede there's a point here, even though both games are still primarily linear.  It's potentially possible to go out of your way and get destroyed by powerful monsters (or fluke a victory), but that's not what the designers intended. Additionally, the games are segmented so that it is not possible to access filled only with significantly more powerful encounters until you had gained enough experience to be ready for them. In Baldur's Gate you couldn't just happen across Cloakwood, and in Ultima Underworld 2 you couldn't just jump straight to the Pits of Carnage or the Ethereal void. The game was segmented to stop you from pursuing things far beyond your league. (And to prevent you short-circuiting the linear plot of the game)  Of course, we could also argue the benefits of non-linearity as presented in Dragon Age, but that's another issue entirely...

Another major point to consider is the issue of backtracking. Backtracking is where the player has to traverse and area that they have already explored, typically without any change to the environment. If the player has to do this multiple times, it can get very tedious. This is one area where the original Baldur's Gate can suffer quite a bit, and Morrowind is particularly susceptible to it. Oblivion's fast travel system reduced the level of backtracking required over Morrowind, even though some (incorrectly) tried to suggest it was a shortcoming rather than an improvement.

With a mod making it pretty, I wanted to use the map even more.

Adding in new enemies to areas that have already been explored is a potential means to reduce the tedium, but if this is done repeatedly, it can actually make the situation worse. Again, case in point here is Baldur's Gate, with the "you have been waylaid by enemies and must defend yourself" message, which became an exercise in annoyance at higher levels where the enemies posed no real threat to you. Even if those encounters had been scaled, it would have been more an exercise is frustration than enjoyment. Also see S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Far Cry 2 for examples of how this really can make a game far less enjoyable, if not outright annoying.

Get out of here, respawning enemies.

Another issue to consider is the power scale inherent in the combat mechanics used within the game. One of the problems in addressing an increasing power of both the player character(s) and their enemies is that degree by which their strength grows as they progress through the game.  If you do a comparison of something like a first person shooter, the overall difficulty of the enemies increases somewhat, but nowhere near to the degree of something like Diablo 2. Going up to the later stages of the game on "Hell" difficulty meant that enemies could have several thousands of hitpoints and do hundreds of points of damage with a single attack. This is from a starting point where you were potentially talking single digit hitpoint and damage totals.

If your game has a combat system where that kind of progression can occur, then any non-linearity means that the difficulty of balancing those encounters will likely correlate with the power of level progression. That is, as a general rule, the more power a character gains from each level of experience, the harder it will be to provide balanced combat across a range of levels.  However, if a character doesn't gain much power from each level of experience, then the sense of achievement from gaining a new level could begin to feel somewhat hollow. Balancing these two things is not any easy task.

Justified, ancient, and butt-kicking for goodness

Finally, we come to the thorny issue of time. Ultimately, there is a limited amount of time when creating a game. Time is money, and as such, neither is unlimited. (Note: if you somehow have unlimited money and love RPGs, hire me and I'll work on creating them non-stop) As such, there needs to be a simple way to provide challenging combat for players. So we want to be able to implement a scaling technique that automatically adjusts enemy power based on the player's power - which is precisely what level scaling does.

The key here is the word "automatically". Ideally, the designer will be able to set up an encounter, and then the scaling mechanisms within the game/game engine will ensure that no matter at what point the player comes across it, the monsters will be of an appropriate strength to provide a reasonable combat challenge to the player.  If the designer has to manually adjust the strength of an encounter based on the possible level ranges of the character when they find it, then the whole process quickly becomes very time consuming. Again, this ties in with the power scaling per level issue I've mentioned above, and compounds the issue even further. Talking in rough equation terms: time required to design combat ~= number of encounters * power differential per level * possible level ranges. Of course, we could then add in factors such as party composition, but then we're dealing with a whole other kettle of fish regarding encounter balance based on class/party make-up, and that can be difficult at the best of times.

So with all this discussion about encounter scaling, we can probably finally start looking at means to help provide better solutions, but that will have to wait for another day.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Level Scaling - The Drawbacks

Yesterday I discussed the reason we need encounters to be more difficult as a game progresses, and touched on how non-linearity requires some sort of scaling mechanic to make encounters more difficult. Today I'm going to focus on the ways in which that scaling, particularly when it is performed as level scaling, really has a detrimental effect on the overall gaming experience.

Let's get out of the way first: Oblivion's level scaling was terrible. It so perfectly demonstrates how badly level scaling can go wrong, which is why I'm going to pick on it. Sure, I could pick more obscure titles to prove a point, but showcasing the worst example highlights the issues better. So, yes, I'm going to pick on Oblivion a lot here, but it's not the only title at fault when it comes to level scaling. Key issues include:

Lack of Danger
In Oblivion you could pretty much wander safely (to a degree) anywhere you wanted to start with because all the monsters were scaled down to your level. There was never any real danger of suddenly encountering a monster that would destroy in an instant, no accidental chance of running into a greater daedra while running around as an inexperience novice. This lack of grave threat led to a feeling of complacency and even boredom that was totally undesirable.

I explored a deadly wilderness and all I got was this lousy wolf

Being able to explore the darkest reaches of the forest or the peaks of the harshest mountains without fear of deadly repecussions meant that the sense of achievement you should have had from finally reaching those outlands was greatly diminshed. Armed with the knowledge that you could safely go wherever you wanted whenever you wanted, and without the tangible grave danger of having to avoid an enemy far beyond you, the thrill of exploration was all but lost. Because of this, the sense of achievement as a result of that exploration became weak and hollow.

Ridiculous enemies
Okay, one of my pet Oblivion hates comes under this category: glass armoured bandits.

Seriously, the amount of gold that can be acquired from selling a full set of glass armour (which is what the bandits late in the game get around in), is worth more than enough to keep someone well-kept for a very long time. They wouldn't need to mug random passers-by, as they could easily make a small fortune by selling the armour. Heck, they could probably even afford to buy a set of cheaper armour to keep them safe if they were just doing it for the thrill rather than the money. Likewise, you can also encounter solders travelling around in full daedric plate, which is supposed to be extremely rare and ridiculously powerful, and that broke believability in a big way. Not to mention that either enemy destroys any concept of economy by providing you with a ludicruously high income.

Poor bandit? I don't think so.

This also plays as a counterpoint to the previous issue about a lack of danger. As you levelled up and became a fearsome hero, powerful enemies/monsters were camped right outside places that were (and still are) considered safe by NPCs. So everyone was panicking about a few goblins in the hills a little while ago, but now there are Storm Atronachs practically outside the gates of the city and no one bats an eyelid?

Cosmetic Issues
Now while Oblivion gets brutally abused for its level scaling, Morrowind did implement scaling to a degree. For the most part, it wasn't as bad, but there were still some issues. For one, it was potentially possible to miss out on certain enemies. As certain monsters/areas were levelled up to provide the player with a challenge, you could "miss out" on some monster types entirely if you didn't go to areas where they could be found while your character was within certain level ranges.

Now, this might seem like a fairly trivial matter, but you have no idea how disappointed I was as a player when I went through the entirety of Morrowind without encountering a single Clannfear. I saw them repeatedly in the loading screens, but I never ever got to fight one because I didn't go to areas with daedra enemies when I was in the "right" level range to find them. Years later, I still remember that disappointment. It was why I loved it when I did finally get to fight them in Oblivion, even if it was only for a short period.

My favourite enemy I never fought

The other issue you run into is the fact that sometimes level scaling is used to make the same small group of enemies more useful throughout a large period of the game. Ouch Dragon Age, I'm looking at you. Genlocks, Hurlocks, Ogres and Shrieks. That's pretty much it for darkspawn. Admittedly there are more monsters in the game than just darkspawn, but the game does have a fairly limited bestiary when it comes to opponents. A large proportion of them are humanoid as well, which cuts down on the feeling of "epic fantasy", though Dragon Age is supposed to be more "dark fantasy", so I suppose that complaint is more stylistic than anything else. But I confess that the game did start to feel a bit "the same" after the nth fight with mindless darkspawn.

The alternative is to use monsters in a tiered approached, whereby you "unlock" higher tiers of monsters as you level up. This is precisely what Morrowind and Oblivion did. However, this only serves to segment and delay the underlying problem. Once you reach the "top tier" of monsters, nothing ever changes. You're faced with the same creatures over and over again at this point. So you had better hope that you're close to finish them game, otherwise you're going to be suffering the same fate as those who demanded "more monsters". Alternatively, this approach can sometimes not really provide much improvement at all, e.g. Fallout 3 and its Mirelurks. You got new and improved Mirelurks as you went up levels, but for the most part, they looked and behaved the same. Sorry, but giving a monster a new name, some more hitpoints and some extra damage doesn't really make for a new monster.

Plot inconsistencies
This ties into the previous point regarding "ridiculous enemies", but is another facet of the problem. During the game, we're told about a supposedly "all powerful" enemy in the early/middle part of the story who is threatening the sanctity of life in a large area. If this enemy is not stopped, who knows what terrible things could happen? So you play the hero and defeat the enemy in a difficult battle. Hooray for you!

However, the problem is that in practice, this "powerful enemy" is actually less dangerous than an "average grunt" you encounter towards the tail end of the game. Because the enemies have to get progressively harder, the "average enemy" eventually surpasses the power of the "bosses" you fought earlier in the game, creating a strange paradox where you're now defeating a small army of enemies, who logically all have that same potential to deal destruction on a level equivalent to the "powerful enemy" you fought earlier in the game. I'm going to pick on Dragon Age for this one - here's looking at the Sloth Demon if he's destroyed early on in the game by the player.

Ahhh, fresh meat. Looks like someone needs to be sent to the butcher's shop.

So, as we can see, level scaling has more than its fair share of drawbacks. There are probably more that could be discussed, but I think this post covers this most important and commonly stated reasons that it is maligned. These are some fairly glaring issues that it causes despite the problems that it can (sometimes) solve, which means that surely there must be more at stake here than the simple issue of "we must be able to make the game harder". But discussing other design considerations regarding combat difficulty will have to wait until another day...

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Level Scaling - The Why

I'm going to spend a few posts discussing the issue of a much maligned game design trope - level scaling.  I recently got into a "discussion" (if you could call it that) on the BioWare forums about the mechanic.  If you've read those posts, some of what I say here will be repeated from there, but I feel it is something that actually deserves to be examined with some thought.

One of the reasons level scaling is much maligned is because it is examined on its own as an individual mechanic. Breaking down a game into its components is a good means to analyse a game technically, but the problem can be that the individual criticisms don't take into account how the game works as a whole. There's a "can't see the forest for the trees" problem occurring for many people.  Interestingly enough, this seems to be the issue that many US game reviewers had with the game Alpha Protocol.  Here is a very interesting article discussing the vast divide in reviews of the game from the US and Europe. I have to say, from my perspective, it seems like the US reviewers were expecting an FPS or a Mass Effect. Alpha Protocol is neither; it is a great game in its own right, albeit with some technical/polish issues.

I imagine Thorton would use these options on an Internet forum too...

Generally, one of the core aspects of an RPG is considered to be the process of leveling up your character.  Through their actions, they become more experienced, which subsequently lets them become more powerful. In most games, a large portion of this power is demonstrated through combat, as the player's hero becomes more capable with a weapon or magic, but also with other supporting skills. Players have to fight at some point, so they need to do something to make them more capable in dispatching enemies. If you can find me an RPG with no mandatory combat, I'll be surprised and impressed. (Actually, I think that's called an adventure game) Players like having this progression, as they like reaching the end of the game knowing that their former rat-slaying weakling has dispatched trolls, giants and dragons on their way to saving the day/world/land of cute puppies.

As such, the enemies increase in difficulty as the game goes on. Take Baldur's Gate 2, where you go from killing goblins, slavers and trolls to facing off against an entire drow city, beholders and dragons.  Or Diablo 2 (why did I pick two sequels?), where you go from beating quill beasts and creatures that run away when you kill one of their friends, to a giant charging slug of doom, jungle-midgets-from-hell, demonspawn (and demonspawners) and a prime evil in the form of Diablo himself.

What's 3 feet tall and delightful to kill? These things.

So as we progress through an RPG, our character becomes more powerful, and as such, the enemies need to become more powerful as well. If the former doesn't occur, the player has a reduced sense of achievement. If you don't believe me, then you're at odds with everyone who has ever played World of Warcraft, or done something that was not entirely fun for the sake of earning an Xbox achievement or PS3 trophy. People (gamers in particular) like achieving things and getting rewards, no matter how small they might be.

If enemies don't become more powerful, then we fall into a terrible situation where the combat becomes repetitive and laughably easy, both of which inspire boredom. The last thing a player wants to be while playing a game is bored. Hence why developers/designers do everything they can to stop the player from being bored. So therefore the encounters the player is involved in have to become harder, so the player takes advantage of their improved skills, tactics, items or anything else that might affect gameplay.

Having established that it's essential for a player to have that sense of achievement, there's a few means of delivering that. For starters, you can pit the player again new enemies, which will look different from previous enemies, most likely behave differently, possibly use new abilities or weapons, and definitely be tougher (ie take or deal more damage) than the previous enemies. The designer could have the player face off against a horde of weaker enemies they've faced previously, demonstrating how much more powerful they are by handily dispatching an army of enemies that previously posed a threat. It is also possible to put the player in fantastical "boss battles" with amazing enemies that require special tactics to win is one excellent means, and also serve as natural climaxes within the flow of the game's plot and its difficulty curve. I'm sure you can think of other ways to make encounters more challenging too.

Take 2 of a fight against the same boss. This time, you win.

So fights have to get more difficult as the game goes on, which is more than achievable by pitting the player against increasingly difficult enemies.  That's been happening in games for years. But in the past few years, games have become increasingly complex. We're no longer always pushed down a linear path. However, this poses a problem. If we're no longer dealing with a linear path and there are several major quest lines to pursue, how do we keep combat challenging across the length of the game?

Let's say we're dealing with four key-quest lines as part of the main plot. By necessity, if we're making the game non-linear, the player must be able to pick any of these four quests from the start. If they can't... well, the game isn't non-linear, is it? At which point you're simply providing the illusion of choice, and beating the player into a pulp if they don't take your "suggested" path.  In that case, my bother giving the illusion of choice? Just force the player down the linear path that they have to take anyway. It is a lesser evil to pretend that the player has choice when they don't than to simply not present it as an option.

The illusion of choice...

So in our scenario, the player can pick any of the four quest lines from the start, and will likely gain a lot of experience (and hence combat prowess) from finishing one of these. If they then go to another one of those four areas, unless the difficulty of the combat encounters is increased... that's right, boredom sets in.  So we have to scale the difficulty of the encounters to match the player's level, which sounds like a job for level scaling!

Unfortunately, level scaling doesn't always work out for the best, and has numerous problems associated with it. Those issues are what I'll be addressing next time.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Personalised Experience

Well, firstly I must say that I'm extremely surprised at the complete lack of response to my Baldur's Gate 2 antagonist post.  For a game that is so incredibly popular, to have no response to an analysis of the game's villain is surprising to say the least.  I'm not sure whether I missed the mark entirely and people are so outraged that they can't comment or whether they don't have anything to add.

But, moving on to today's post, I'd like to discuss "the little things" again.  I know I made a post previously on whether people paid attention to the small details, but this is somewhat of a different issue.  Normally, when I talk about choice in video games (which I do a lot), I talk about the big things in games. Whether major NPCs live or die, whether your character's decision has some huge effect on the game world at large.  I love these decisions, but what about the small choices?

Take the case of Ser Landry in Dragon Age. This misguided warrior accuses you of treason and his honour demands you face him in battle.  While this is a small "quest", there are numerous options for dealing with him.
  1. Convince him you aren't a Grey Warden.
  2. Convince him you are innocent.
  3. Fight him and his soldiers.
  4. Fight him in one on one combat.
Packing it in, and running away... brave, brave, Ser Landry.

This isn't an important quest in the game, and it can potentially be over in merely a couple of sentences. However, it's good in that it offers a personalized experience for people who play the game. People get their own decision of how to deal with him and their adventure differs in a small customisable way. This is what I mean by a personalised experience, in that every player will have a game that is slightly different from every other. Even if a single player has multiple playthroughs, there will be small differences between each game.

But what things that the player doesn't so actively choose, or aren't presented to the player as clear choices they immediately get a result from.  When dealing with Ser Landry, the player picks a dialogue response to produce their desired outcome. What about situations where the world reacts to them differently as a result of certain actions or their character?

Take the potential for the player to be outed as a blood mage at the end of the "Broken Circle" quest line. Or the repeated prejudice that the player faces as an elf. These aren't elements that the player has directly caused right then and there through a dialogue choice, but are a reaction to the player's previous choices or actions.

I guess he didn't like Legolas in Lord of the Rings

What if, as a player, instead of being presented with major plot-changing decisions, you were presented with a lot of small choices or actions? What if these choices had little reminders of those decisions later on? Take a hypothetical situation of a farmer under attack from monster or bandits. You deal with the situation (or not), and later return to the town the farmer lives in. If you save the farmer, the people in the town are happy, but if the farmer died, people beg to you for money so they can buy food.

You have an immediate choice to make, but that choice informs what happens later in the game, perhaps only in the form of a few changed lines of dialogue. There's no "right" decision that rewards more experience or reward, just a different outcome. The player's decisions don't have a massive effect on the world as a whole, but they feel like they have a personal experience through a myriad of small decisions that all have a minor effect on many characters within the world.

Now, decisions that have an effect on the major aspects of the plot might have more impact in terms of how the player feel they've made a difference in the world. As a player and someone interested in game design, I love the idea that the player's action have that sort of huge effect on the main story.  But how would that compare to a game that had a focus on those small decisions?

With "small choices", every player will end up killing "the big bad" at the end, but each player's experience would be a deeply personal one. They'll have little reminders all along the way of the choices they've made, be ostracized occasionally for their ruthlessness, or praised for their benevolence; praised for saving someone's life, or merely see a gravestone marking another casualty of their passing. Perhaps that's the essence of a personalised roleplaying experience: a game where all your choices have an effect on the world in some small fashion.

PS I've also added little "reaction" buttons to each post - so now you don't even have to write anything to let me know what you think!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Antagonists: Baldur's Gate 2

Jonoleth. The Exile. Jon Irenicus. Baldur's Gate 2: Shadows of Amn is still considered by many to be the pinnacle of computer RPGs. While I won't argue the merits of that point here, there's no denying that Irenicus is one brilliant antagonist. He hounds you from the very start of the game, and despite on the surface appearing to be a megalomaniac with visions of power and grandeur, he is actually a complex and interesting character. So with the requisite spoiler warning, let's dive into the plot overview... (Strap yourselves in, it's a long one)

You start the game with an introduction of the events of Baldur's Gate 1, most importantly introducing you as a Bhaalspawn. It seems you have been captured and are being tortured by an unknown villain. Your captor, a mage, speaks of power before he is drawn away by an attack. With the assistance of your allies, you escape his dungeon, making your way to the streets of the city of Athkatla. Your friend/"sister", Imoen joins in an attack on your captor by the mysterious Cowled Wizards, who police the use of magic within the city. As a result, they are both taken prisoner and whisked away.

I know dungeons are meant to be creepy, but this takes it to the next level...

Thus begins your search for the means to follow Imoen and this mage, who goes by the name Jon Irenicus. As you gather money to pay for the services of some expensive friends, you are taunted in your dreams by him. Irenicus speaks of power, of your heritage as a Bhaalspawn and the power it brings. You end up siding or opposing a group of vampires led by "Bodhi", a sinister female vampire that seems a little too familiar with you. You make your way to the island of Brynnlaw and the Spellhold Asylum where Imoen and Irenicus are being held captive. However, before you even arrive, it is relayed to you that Irenicus has taken control of the asylum, and so you are merely walking into his trap.

Spellhold before it became Spellhold

He imprisons you with the help of a traitor he placed in your midst within the dungeon in which you escaped at the very start of the game. Using his powers, Irenicus drains you of your godly essence, stripping Bhaal's spark from your body. It is revealed that the same has been done to Imoen, who (unbeknownst to either of you) is also a child of Bhaal. He has absorbed your essence, and Imoen's has been taken by the vampire Bodhi, who is now shown to be Irenicus' sister. Subsequently imprisoned again, you escape despite Bodhi's attempts to hinder you.

During this process, you become overwhelmed by the taint of Bhaal's presence (I'm not exactly sure how), and you transform into "The Slayer", which was the fearsome Avatar of Bhaal when he walked the land as a mortal. Bodhi flees at the sight of this startling development. It seems even though having the taint stripped from you has not killed you, you will die before too long if you do not get it back. The stakes for catching and defeating Irenicus just became even higher.

You attempt to follow Irenicus and Bodhi but fail as your ship is destroyed as you are yanked beneath the sea. You fight your way through the underdark and a drow city to find a group of elves who mention "The Exile", who is none other than Irenicus himself! In order to save Imoen's life, you must kill Bodhi and take back her spirit, and then you must find and kill Irenicus to save yourself. However, Irenicus is assaulting the elven city of Suldanesselar to take the power of the "Tree of Life" in order to become immortal. This is in fact the second time he has attempted to do this - the first time he and his sister conspired to do so, they were stripped of their elvish heritage; turned into twisted shells and forced to turn to dark arts merely to survive. You finally kill Irenicus (twice!) and reclaim your soul, saving Suldanesselar in the process.

Well, looks like we're Big Damn Heroes

Phew! I know that was possibly unnecessary for many of you, but it's still nice to condense the plot (yes, that is condensed!) and remind everyone of the key points. It deserves some time, because I know there's a lot of people that have been hanging out to read this post. (That's part of why it's taken me so long to get to - I've revised this post a lot)

Simply put, Irenicus is a fantastic villain. Right from the start, you've got a reason to hate him. He's captured you, tortured you, and stolen your childhood friend. Even if you're a selfish player, his promises of power should be enough to tempt you. His megalomanical taunts in your sleep seem to hint that you could become more than you are, but still indicate that he is (and will remain) more powerful than you unless you try and harness your divine heritage.

He comes across as a power-crazed lunatic even though he is already an incredibly powerful mage, but you always get the impression something more is going on. He's not simply crazy, he's Machiavellian in his schemes and ruthless in the pursuit of his own interests. He cares nothing for those that do not suit his purposes, and (rightfully) has a great disdain for most individuals because they are simply nowhere near strong enough to challenge him. His excellent voice work just adds even more to his character, particularly given this was a time when only small snippets of dialogue were voiced.

Irenicus plays the tortured villain

Irenicus is great because he's just so damn powerful and he's constantly hassling you, even in your dreams. He's a continual thorn in your side, even when he's not actually there. You get to know part of his character, the cold power-mad villain, but then that persona is developed further as the story really hits its strides. He has a crazy lust for power and revenge (but you don't know on whom he wants revenge or why), yet he still goes out of his way to protect his sister, who he seemingly still cares for after years of torment in their shared broken states. There is still some shred of compassion in him, but it is never entirely clear if it is real compassion. There's always the suspicion that part of it is simply faked through a process of logical reasoning and the shared benefit they gain from banding together. This extra depth of character really adds to him, and it is further developed at the tail end of the game.

It is revealed the Irenicus used to be Queen Ellesime's lover before he fell from grace, and he is genuinely indignant and tortured by having his elvish heritage stripped from him: "I do not remember love, Ellesime. For years I clung to the memory of it, then the memory of the memory, then nothing. The Seldarine took that from me too." Again, the manner in which this line is delivered is brilliant in that it harks bark to an encounter at the very start of the game that made no sense at the time. In an attempt in capture his emotion of love, Irenicus attempt to create clones of Ellesime that you found in his dungeon. The fact that his character is exposed to its almost vulnerable core by you seeing his inner sanctum at the very start of the game, only for you to finally make sense of that information right at the end is a masterstroke of antagonist development.

"You sly dog! You got me monologuing!"

Irenicus proves he is beyond redemption through his actions and continued refusal to back down from his ultimately destructive path, but he truly conveys to the player that for him there was simply no choice in the matter. His initial brutal punishment left him with no alternative but to pursue a path of revenge and to wreak destruction upon those that cursed him and his sister so horribly, to the point where you can almost feel sorry for him. You can understand his position that the elves manufactured the trouble they are in by destroying him so completely, yet you are still determined to bring him undone.

This is why Irenicus is such a fantastic computer game antagonist and part of the reason why Baldur's Gate 2 was such a great game. He is a complex character that you truly come to understand and potentially even respect as an adversary, yet you still have every reason to want to defeat him. In this case, the adage "better the villain you know" is proven accurate in a whole new way. You come to know Irenicus very well, you grow to hate him through his actions, you understand and almost pity him, but you want to kill him anyway.

Viva le grand antagonists!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Antagonists: Ultima Underworld 2

When I played Ultima Underworld 2 (which I actually played before the original Ultima Underworld), I came to realise that I loved this style of game. At the time, I probably didn't even think about gaming genres... At the time I think I might have described it to a friend as "like Dungeon Master, except you can move around like Wolfenstein, and you can jump!" At that time, games were games - there wasn't anything more for me except answering the question "Is it fun?" Now, I still expect games to be fun, but I also expect a lot more from them - yes, I'm a demanding gamer. Anyway, plot overview and spoilers to follow...

The game starts with an introduction via a letter acting as written narration for the video. The letter is addressed to "The Avatar", and I quickly assume that must be me. Apparently I defeated "The Guardian" a year ago, and have been invited by one "Lord British" to attend a feast in honour of that victory. But the next morning, a giant black dome forms over the top of the castle, trapping everyone inside. As the game starts, I am the Avatar, and I meet Lord British and along with a host of people who are apparently my friends, try to form a plan to escape the castle. No sooner have we finished talking than an eerie red face appears "Yes, British, hasten to thy vain struggle" it taunts. Obviously this is The Guardian, the one who has sprung this trap.

Like a rat caught in a... big black rock.

As a player, you must then venture beneath the castle, where you find a strange glowing black rock, which appears to be made of the same substance that forms the giant dome around the castle. In a stroke of simplicity, it's called "blackrock". Walking into a lit facet of this octagonal gem, you find yourself teleported to another land, a prison tower manned by goblins. Either fighting or talking your way past them, you find that this tower has its own troubles, and that it too has felt the influence of The Guardian. Within, you find a small blackrock gem and eventually retreat. Returning to the keep, you find the Nystul, a mage, is able to treat the gem, allowing you to fuse it with the blackrock beneath the castle.

The blackrock changes and the ground shakes as you do so, which then allows you to access more worlds through the gem, each of which has been tainted by The Guardian's influence in some way. However, something is amiss in the castle, as one of the inhabitants is murdered by someone or something. You are unable to identify the killer, but tensions are high. You travel to a land called Killorn Keep, which is in a land controlled by The Guardians servants, yet even there you find an ally to your cause. She eventually gives you a rod that allows you to dispel The Guardian's influence. Thus in each land, you discover that you must find a Blackrock Gem to fuse the rock beneath the castle, and use the rod in a specific location to diminish The Guardian's influence.

"What is it?" "It's a hole through time." "Oh, a magic door! Well, why didn't you say?"

Yet as your quest progresses, you discovered that you are betrayed within, as a man named Patterson murders your friend Nelson before you as he is about to tell you something important. You deal with the unrepentant Patterson, but The Guardian has already demonstrated his power once more. The places you visit include: a destroyed mage training academy, a city destroyed by ice, the tomb of a king who does not know he is dead, a glorified gladatioral arena and the mysterious "Ethereal Void". Eventually, you discover that weakening the Blackrock will not be enough, and instead you must perform a ritual... You must capture the essence of an earth djinn in your body, and then using a magical horn, release the djinn with a furious blast that will shatter the blackrock dome.

Even when you are prepared, The Guardian has a last gasp effort to stop you, as his servant Mors Gotha from Killorn Keep invades the castle through the Blackrock gem and attempts to take you and the others hostage. You kill Mors Gotha and make your way to the Throne room, where you destroy the blackrock dome in its entirety. Now, if you want a really long version of the game, complete with screenshots and amusing commentary try this link. It's not complete, but it's still gold.

Ahh, there's nothing like a big angry tree to get you in a fighting mood

First things first - I'd never played (and still have never played) an Ultima game, so I came into the game with zero knowledge of The Guardian, or the world of Britannia. Did that impact on my enjoyment of the game? Not one bit. It felt strange to be told by all these people that I was their friend, and I probably wouldn't be happy with that from a modern game, but I was young and didn't complain. Even now, I'll give the game a pass because of its age and because they probably assumed (incorrectly) that their audience would have familiarity with the series. Yet, right from the start, I got the impression that I didn't like "The Guardian". I've defeated him before, now while I'm celebrating my triumph, he has the gall to strike a grave blow and imprison in the castle with the Lord of the land. Then he taunts me as I seek to find a way out of his trap. Audibly. That's right, he has a voice I can hear rather than just read. In fact, he is the only character in the entire game that is voiced.

So I immediately have a reason to dislike The Guardian - he's placed me in a giant prison that he says will also be my tomb. What's more is that everything you hear about The Guardian is bad. He's always killing, controlling, capturing, enslaving... to the point where when I reached Killorn Keep, which contained his apparently loyal subjects, I wanted to kill them all. In my righteous fury, I would smite all allies of The Guardian. While this proved to be very difficult, I succeeded... eventually... but then found that I couldn't really do much more in the game... good thing I saved beforehand and can reload...

Time for the "stab first and ask questions later" policy

The great thing about the game was that everywhere (else) I went, The Guardian had done something to destroy or corrupt it. He ruined an entire city by turning it into an ice cavern, he annihilated a once bustling mage academy, he created a society in which he who kills the most in brutal combat rules the land. He even tainted the "Ethereal Void" a land of dreams in which nothing makes sense, and a place that should belong to no one. And occasionally he would taunt me... laughing as he sprang a trap, or gloating over the destruction he had wrought within a world. He was even able to turn one of my supposed friends to his fold (or more accurately, back to his fold, as apparently Patterson had served the Guardian before) and have him kill my friends within the castle.

You know what, Guardian? Nobody likes a braggart.

The funny thing about the game is that I never actually get to defeat The Guardian. I destroyed his blackrock dome, but I never faced him. I also have no idea what he might have in store for me (or Brittania) in the future, yet I felt a great sense of accomplishment. I had thwarted his plans and weakened his influence not only in Brittania, but many other lands besides.

The Guardian worked as a antagonist on several levels. Firstly, he gives you a reason to hate him right from the start. He has you imprisoned; you are at his mercy, but even better, he can't kill you. He's not underestimating you, he's just eliminating you from the picture entirely. By the time he realises you're about to defeat him, he sends his best, Mors Gotha, to dispatch you, but she can't stand up to you. He also has his hand in everything and has caused (either directly or indirectly) most of the wrongs that you have to right during the game.

This city sure has gone to the dogs... ehhh, I mean yeti.

For me, I'd say it was the best RPG around until Baldur's Gate was released. The Guardian wasn't the primary reason the game was great, but he was just another good addition to the myriad of places you visited, quests you finished, monsters you vanquished, puzzles you solved... Actually, on that note, at one point I ate a "Mandrake root" and then went to sleep - and woke up in the "Ethereal Void". This allowed me drop a "moonrock" in my dream, which I could then teleport to in order to reach an otherwise unreachable location. Sounds like "drug use related to incentives or rewards" - whoops, I guess it should have been banned in Australia!

But I digress - the fact remains that Ultima Underworld 2 was a great game - and if you're able to deal with "outdated" games, probably still worth a play even now. Otherwise, check out that link giving a run down of (most) of the game. The only suggestion I might give is to not give into the temptation that so freely exists on the Internet nowadays. Don't look for a walkthrough. Tough it out and figure out the puzzles for yourself. When I played this game, I had no walkthrough (heck, I had no Internet!). You don't want to be outsmarted by a teenager, do you?

PS Yes, I know there's some nostalgia reviewing in this post. If looked at with modern standards, the game has significant flaws beyond its outdated graphics and controls, but it is still an interesting game.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Australia and Computer Games

Australia has a major problem at the moment when it comes to gaming.  It's called the OFLC - Office of Film and Literature Classification. To speak more accurately, it's actually the Australian Classification Board. The OFLC was actually dissolved in 2006, yet it's still referred to be that name by many people.  Regardless, the point is that this Government run body determines what media is allowed to be shown in Australia based on the Australian classification system.  For gamers, this has proven to be in illogical and inequitable farce for many years. Incoming rant warning...

For those not in the know, Australia has no R18+ classification for computer games. The classification exists for other media such as film, books, magazines and CDs, but not for computer games. This in the past was due to a South Australian Attorney General named Michael Atkinson who staunchly opposed the creation of this classification, and because its creation required a unanimous decision from the ruling committee, his vote meant that it would never happen. When he finally stepped down this year, gamers across Australia celebrated. However, the classification still doesn't exist. As such we end up with ridiculous situations where we sometimes get the same game with a reduced classification. This is a photograph of my Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening DVD...

It's a Choose Your Own Classification Adventure!

A public request for comment was put out by the Attorney General's Department (who own the Classification Board), asking for opinions on an R18+ classification for games. Needless to say, a campaign from gamers meant an overwhelmingly positive response, despite the fact that the questionnaire had been worded with blatant bias against it. However, even that response has proven useless, as it has been deemed that the response was skewed by interest groups and an independent review would have to be undertaken.  Why? If people did not care enough about the issue, or were not well-enough informed to make a decision on the issue, why should they be consulted and have this casting vote on it?

Why does this annoy me (and countless other gamers)? For starters, we end up with games that are crippled in function and/or atmosphere: the Australian version of Left 4 Dead 2 has features removed from the game, and the zombies magically disappear upon being killed. This isn't a Twilight game with sparkling vampires for crying out loud!  The other option is that we ban the game completely...

Take at a glance at what is on the horizon...

Let's look at the RPG Risen by Piranha Bytes, who also released the Gothic series. I've never played any of them, and apparently Gothic 3 was a bit of a disaster so I'm not sure that I will. But when I heard about Risen, I thought it sounded somewhat interesting. However, it was banned in Australia, so unless I choose to import and play it illegally, I won't get to do so. However, with the help of an overseas friend and the Internet, I'm able to demonstrate what it is that got the game banned.  Now, according to the classification board, the rationale for the ban was due to "sexual activity and drug use related to incentives or rewards".

So I asked my overseas friend (an Australian ex-pat) to take some screenshots of anything that might fit this description. Unsurprisingly, (to me at least) the evidence was very thin on the ground. Let's deal with the drug usage first. So apparently there is a plant called "Brugleweed", which is suggested to be a drug of some sort, though the actual nature is never elaborated on. It is possible to collect these plants, abbreviated to "Weed" and also to smoke a "Weed Reefer". Smoking one of these "Weed Reefers" provides a very small experience gain... about double what you get for killing a defenseless chicken. Yes, a domestic chicken. Perhaps the game is also encouraging people to act like Ozzy Osbourne and murder animals in live concert performances?

Apparently, this will teach kids to smoke marijuana...

The second point relates to sexual activity.  I think it's first necessary to point out the obvious hypocrisy for banning any game for "benefits due to sexual activity" when we have games like Grand Theft Auto IV are freely available. Let's not forget the female characters in that game who you gain benefits from (a lawyer who can reduce you wanted level with law enforcement being the most useful), simply because you had sex with them.  Or how about the fact that there's specific XBox achievements to be earned for having sex with characters in games... like Grand Theft Auto IV... or *GASP* Dragon Age: Origins.  And let's not forget about family friendly Mario and how Princess Peach keeps offering him some... "cake".  Okay, so having set the standard with games that are allowed classification... what terrible crime does Risen commit?

Your character has the option to pay a prostitute for sex, and then there's a fade-to-black encounter with her. Now, we've had "explicit" sex scenes in a video game plenty of times before, so that's not the issue. No, the issue is that after you sleep with this prostitute, she claims to be a psychic who foresees that you will have a hard road ahead of you and may need help. Now if they were banning terribly cliched and ridiculous dialogue, then I wouldn't complain... oh wait, I would, because that would cover most computer games. :-P But I digress...

Anyway, the prostitute gives you a scroll that with cause anyone you have offended to forget about the wrong you have to them.  Basically, it's a "get-out-of-jail-free-card" if you happen to pick a fight with someone you shouldn't.  I was also informed that the impression she gives is that she's doing it out of genuine concern rather than a "services rendered" situation.

Ahh, such is the moral decay of society...

Of course, I've been told to note that both of these things are entirely optional within the game, and there's nothing forcing you to smoke a "Weed Reefer" or any suggestion that there will be any benefit from sleeping with the prostitute.

So can I back up the claims of how ridiculous this game being banned is? No. I have no reasonable legal recourse to complain about the decision. True, the review board does have a complaint/review system, but without having the source material, any complaint I make is hardly credible. If I've never played it or seen it, which I can't legally do, I can't provide any evidence to prove the decision is ridiculous apart from simple hearsay. So please, overseas readers and gamers, spare a thought for those of us in Australia and the ways that games here are currently crippled or banned entirely.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Antagonists: Knights of the Old Republic

Knights of the Old Republic still marks a high point in computer games within the Star Wars franchise. It was my first foray back into the universe on a computer since the days of X-Wing, and I wasn't disappointed.  I'll confess I'm not a Star Wars fanatic, but I was still keen to give the game a shot when it finally came out for the PC rather than the XBox. Spoilers ahoy...

The player starts off as a lowly officer onboard a ship which is attacked. They barely manage to make it off the ship alive along with Carth Onasi, a pilot. The pair land on Taris, a Sith controlled planet, and must find Bastila Shan, a powerful Jedi with the "Battle Meditation" ability.  After rescuing her, the player is ordered by the Jedi council to counter the plans of the dangerous Sith Darth Malak, who betrayed his former master Darth Revan to assume control of Sith forces.  He is hunting for something called The Star Forge, which can only be located by finding a number of Star Maps scattered about the galaxy.

Bastila Shan proudly wears designer Jedi clothing.

With Bastila and other allies who you gather upon the way, you retrieve several Star Maps and fight some of Malak's forces, eventually killing his apprentice Darth Bandon.  However, you are then captured by Darth Malak along with all your allies. You, Bastila and Carth are then tortured, and Darth Malak reveals that you have been duped by Bastila and the other Jedi. You are in fact Revan, stripped of your memories through the powers of the force and sent to fight the apprentice who betrayed you. You escape, but Bastila is captured during the attempt.

You track Darth Malak to the Star Forge, which is a giant structure capable of creating thousands of starships. There you find that Bastila has been turned to the Dark Side due to Malak's torturing. After dealing with her, you finally make you way to Malak and dispose of him, either choosing to reclaim your role as a Sith lord or saving the Republic by destroying the Star Forge.

Just wondering, Malak... have you heard of breath mints?

Malak starts off as the classic bad guy, particularly in the Star Wars universe. He turned on his master in attempt to kill him along with a group of Jedi, and wants to rule everything. He sends a bounty hunter to kill you, though a very talented one, then his favoured apprentice.  In this he falls slightly into the classic arch-villain threaten of underestimating his opponent, especially seeing as when he sends his apprentice after you, he should know your real identity. Then Malak reveals your identity personally, and then steals your ally/friend/love interest in the form of Bastila, and turns them against you giving you another reason to want to destroy him. So he gives every for you to hate him, yet for me, he never quite achieved greatness. Why?

Lightsabers, lightsabers... everybody's got lightsabers...

Perhaps it's because of that twist sequence in the game, in which you first meet Malak face to face. Having been chasing your own tail (quite literally) to catch up to him, you're suddenly captured and placed under his control.  When the reveal of your identity comes, directly from Malak himself, it both weakens and strengthens him as an antagonist. On one hand, you've got even more reason to want to defeat him, because he's already betrayed you and attempted to kill you once before.  But on the other, the twist of the plot makes the whole encounter feel more about you as a character/player than it does about him as a villain.

This is even further pushed by the fact that when you escape from his ship, Bastila stays behind to prevent him from defeating you. You saved her at the start of the game, but now she considers you to be the key to defeating Malak. You were his master once before, and you will prove to be his better once again.

At this point, Malak strangely ignores you and treats Bastila as the tool of his victory through her battle meditation. The problem seems to be that Malak is not the vanguard of destruction, but merely uses others to do his bidding. He rose to power in your shadow before seizing control, doesn't kill you when he has the chance, then treats Bastila as his new toy. There's plenty of reasons to dislike or hate Malak, but there's never any real reason to fear him besides the admonition of NPCs that "he is a powerful Sith".

He looks deadly... why not show that side of him?

The problem is that his actions don't match his reputation as a fearsome warrior until you finally face him in battle, and even then, he's only powerful because of his tools in the form of captured Jedi he uses to fuel his power. He's constantly made out as the ultimate warrior, but in reality, he doesn't live up to the hype.

In defeat, he possesses some remorse, questioning what would have happened if your positions had been reversed. This comes across as a slight attempt for redemption that is a particularly nice touch for the light side player. So ultimately, Malak comes off as a somewhat complex character, from the scheming villain masterminding his rise to power and willing to do anything for victory, to regretting his failure in defeat and disgrace. He comes off as an interesting and worthy adversary, but never truly achieves the lofty heights of a grand villain that you love to hate.

There's some really nice elements to KotOR, and I've heard many people declare it their favourite game/RPG. It has the flaw of requiring a lot of backtracking during play, and is also a little hamstrung by the Star Wars moral dichotomy of "Light Side saviour of everything and everyone" vs "Dark Side puppy-murderer", but it's still a great game. Maybe Darth Malak isn't the greatest video game villain of all time, but when the story ends up revolving around you as the player to such a great degree... does he really need to be?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Dragon Age 2: The Coming of Trolls

BioWare's announcement of Dragon Age 2 has caused no small amount of controversy and conversation.  From rehashing old arguments about the Awakenings dialogue system, to not being able to pick your protagonist, to having a fully voiced PC, to a hundred other complaints that are being made with virtually no information about the game whatsoever.

My initial thought was "it's possibly a little soon". After all, we've still got bugs with the original game, Awakening and the toolset that have been known and not resolved for quite some time. I realise that QA takes time and that different developers are working on Dragon Age QA as opposed to working on DA2, but it still feel like we're moving on a little too early. However, one thing that was brought to my attention by a friend was that the time between BG1 and BG2 is roughly the same as between slated to be between the two Dragon Age games. So keep that in mind before declaring it a "rush job" or "EA influence" or the usual banal rhetoric.

So dealing with the three most common issues:
1) The Awakenings system provided more content per line of party member dialogue than Origins. If you can't see that, then I'm sorry, but you're a fool. No, it's not a perfect system, but it was a step in the right direction. Providing contextual conversation rather than a laundry list of questions in repeated camp conversations is a significant improvement. That's what it was designed to do, and succeeded to a degree.
2) Being able to "pick" our protagonist was something unique to Dragon Age: Origins. That was where the "Origins" moniker came from. Are we suddenly demanding a repeat of something that hadn't been done (well) before?
3) Voiced PC... well, this one I could take or leave. I understand the arguments both ways, and can find ridiculousness is both the supporters and nay-sayers. A voiced PC will change the tone of the game somewhat, will likely reduce the variety of PC responses (because it now impacts the budget more), but will make the game more cinematic.

The question I'm more concerned about is "what will happen to the modding community?" I don't want players to abandon DA:O in favour of DA2 before some of the larger DA:O projects are finished. But that's not up to BioWare.

I find the amount of backlash, vitriol, complaints and wild accusations more than a little ridiculous given the game has only just been announced and virtually no information about it has been provided. Before decrying it as "the death of Dragon Age" or "BioWare selling out" or the myriad of other doom and gloom predictions... how about you wait until you actually know something about the game? Heaven forbid that people on the Internet let facts get in the way of a good rant.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Support Your Local Modder

I'd like to issue a little call-to-arms for players to support modders. Specifically, I'd like players to support the modders who are trying to produce "content" based mods rather than "customisations". By "content", I mean mods that provide "real" additions to the game, (wow, that got your attention, didn't it?) new quests, adventures, areas, fully developed party members, etc. Customisation mods are improved textures, improved appearance of faces, a new item, sex mods (which covers anything and everything from sex cutscenes, the ability to sleep with more NPCs, naked bodies, etc), changing mechanics and so on.  Yes, I'm coming at this from a biased perspective, given I have a vested interest in it as I create "content" mods, but there are plenty of other modders who I want to see supported as well. But vote number 1 for me. Yes, it is all about me. Really. So why my rallying cry to bring the gaming masses in force to blow the proverbial trumpets of war? (And if you blow a vuvuzela, I'm kicking you out of the army and feeding you to the darkspawn)

For starters, none of the top ten projects on BioWare's site are quest mods. This is despite that the "Featured Projects" section on the social site has for several past months had four modules with additional playable content; actual quests and adventures for players to experience. The information that BioWare provided on the toolset and the wiki in general was also heavily biased towards the production of quest/adventure modules, suggesting this is what they expected the community to invest their time in. However, at this point in time, I'd have to argue that all the modules that actually offer that type of content are being neglected by both the social site (for not promoting them) and its patrons (for not popularising them).

Now, some might argue it's possible that some of these issues could be fixed or mitigated on the BioWare social site. But it's not entirely the website's fault.  If you check out Dragon Age Nexus, the story is the same. The first mod that's not a cosmetic mod is Ser Gilmore, sitting down at 37. Fragments of Ferelden (61), Castle Cousland (84), Temple of Vulak (85) and King Calenhad's Tomb (96) appear to be the only other mods with actual quests in them in the top 100. Note that I hadn't even heard of the last three before I scrolled through the list today to look at them. The majority of the mods in the top 100 either involve sex/naked bodies or new (and generally horrendously overpowered) items.

DA:O, the breast RPG game since... wait, that's not right...

I'm not trying to dismiss the work of other mod authors, but I don't need or want another Morrigan appearance mod, or bigger breast mod, romance mod or more cosmetic changes to my PC or NPCs. Now, I'm no prude, but having softcore pornography in a computer game is neither titillating nor mature. I don't want a wand of "sleep-with-me-magic" to cast on a whole bunch of NPCs in the game. If that's what you're looking for, have you searched the Internet lately? I suppose Avenue Q did tell us "The Internet is for Porn". (If you don't know what I'm talking about, google it and watch the youtube video of your choice)

I'd also say that the quest mods out there are in general viewed with much harsher eyes than cosmetic mods. I've seen complaints posted about Alley of Murders and other people's quest mods complaining (in some cases with a fair amount of vitriol) about the quality of the mod, "plot holes", fights/enemy selection, a lack of voice acting, bad voice acting, too many homosexual romances, loot being "not phat enuf", too much blood spatter, lighting too purple, "hey, where are my ride-able horses?". Let's not forget there are mods dedicated to providing (usually overpowered) loot, homosexual romances, tougher combat, romanceable crates, etc, and they have varying quality too. For example, let's take one of the highly popular hairstyle mods. There are styles of varying quality, with some good ones, others suffering graphical issues from transparency to model clipping, and there are some which are just... well, a little "Heavenly Sword."

She's angry because someone stole her last bottle of hair dye.

My point is that if players download a customisation mod, they don't judge the models or content by the same yardstick as those produced by the developer themselves. This has been true of every modding community I've seen. Don't get me wrong, I know how hard making good 3D models is, or rewriting a combat system. In some cases, certain talented individuals are able to produce work of near-professional quality, and they are rightfully lauded praise. Unfortunately, when you're dealing with mods with playable content, the same leeway isn't given. As soon as the quality falls short of that provided by the game's developer, players are quick to criticise. Let's not forget that the content of the game itself is provided through years of work by a team of individuals who do this for a living. Modders don't have that time, and many have jobs that occupy a significant portion of their day.

Don't get me wrong, I support and popularise customisation mods which I've download and believe are well done, and there have been quite a few of them. I'm all for supporting mod authors in general, be they producing customisation or content.  However, I'm somewhat disillusioned that the player community still seems to be primarily supporting mods that are effectively cosmetic in nature. To draw a parallel, I never experimented too much with mods in Oblivion because when I looked, all I could find were mods of overpowered items, different textures, levelling systems or game mechanics. I left it and never went back. Apparently I might be a horrible person who should be punished for doing that, but I guess those are the breaks.

I don't want that to happen with Dragon Age.  It has the potential for some amazing story-telling with the ridiculously powerful toolset. However, doing that presents some significant issues that quest modders have to deal with other modders don't. Trust me on this one. The nightmare quotient from the occasionally recalcitrant toolset can be quite high at times. Even the "simple" process of creating a custom world map has only recently been "solved" (for varying values of "solved").

Modder: 0 vs Toolset/Lighting: 2

However, the story telling capability is not currently being recognised or supported by the player community at large. I know there are a number of projects in the pipeline from a number of mod authors and groups which I am certain will be quite impressive. I just hope the community is willing to support them when they come out. (Heck, if you're particularly awesome, support them now!) Unfortunately, based on the current situation, I'm not terribly optimistic that they will receive the recognition they deserve.  Please, players, modders, countrymen/women lend us your votes! Tell your friends, enemies, neighbours, random people on the street to download, vote for, popularise and comment on quest mods. Mod authors might even give out free hugs or cookies to kindly players.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Level Creation: Interior Design

So I recently began work on my first interior.  I'll confess that for this one, I'm actually being somewhat lazy and taking one of BioWare's pre-existing level layouts and culling and modifying it in order to make my own. For some interiors, there's no need to reinvent the wheel, and it's possible to simple take elements of existing areas to create them. However, I don't want people to feel completely like they've seen the area before, so I'm trying to make a few changes here and there so it fits in a bit better with the overall theme and background of the building.

One thing that is critical when creating interior areas is filling the space.  There's nothing worse than wandering around inside a building in a game only to find it consists of little more than a series of bare rooms and corridors. The real trick is that you need to fill that space intelligently. To help you do so, take note of real life.

When you're inside a building, there's typically a purpose for individual space. Have a look as you walk around your house or your work or any other location. Each area has a specific use for its space, and there are objects located within that space matching that purpose. This is what makes can make level design in game interiors so frustrating, in that you have to fill the space with objects that suit the purpose of the room.  However, individual objects that would normally fit in a room may not necessarily look right given the context of other objects.  What do I mean?

Scrolls, books, parchment... goblet and flowers?

In my placement of objects here in this room, I've matched the room itself, but not the individual items. The right hand side of the table is fine and fits a theme, but the left hand side of the table doesn't match that theme, and doesn't even match itself.  What are the flowers doing on the edge of the table? Why are there flowers on a table where someone is doing a lot of reading/writing? What's the goblet for? Actually, why are all the papers arranged as though they're being viewed from the long edge of the table as opposed to the short edge where the chair is located?

Perhaps more importantly, it is possible to use these objects and rearrange so that they don't look out of place. If I turn the papers to face the chair at the end, place the vase in the middle of the table (as it would be if it were there for decoration) and then keep the goblet and the other end, maybe adding a plate and some food... The table suddenly looks a whole lot more like a "real" table as opposed to something with an assortment of props placed on it for decoration. Let's have a look at take two...

Business on the right, pleasure on the left

Of course, some of you might now be calling me silly and saying that players will never notice those decorations. And you might be right. But if the player sees those objects, then subconsciously they're probably going to notice it. The human eye and brain have a remarkable ability to pick up when something isn't "quite right", even it we can't figure out exactly why. The majority of what makes computer generated graphics look "wrong" to us is the fact that the shadows and lighting aren't quite "right". We can't pick exactly what it is that is fake, but we know that it is. The second table, if noticed, is going to give the impression that the area is well used and lived in, as there's both the trappings for working and eating.

That said, I'm not alone in my less than perfect choice of props for interior design. In a bedroom unmodified from BioWare's original design, I came across the following...

I've heard of sleeping with a gun under your pillow, but this is ridiculous...

What does one person (or two if this room is home to a couple) possibly need with that many weapons in their bedroom? Even if someone is a military commander, it seems somewhat excessive to have a small armory of three swords and four bows right beside their bed. And the empty armour stand? Maybe they have one armour for the weekdays and another for their Sunday best?

So there's a great need to fill the space of a level, but in interiors you have to be very careful that you fill the space "properly" and don't make it appear incongruous. You also need to make sure there's sufficient room for the player to move around freely, and also engage in combat if that is going to occur within the area.  Exterior levels can get away with open areas a little more freely, as it is possible to decorate with good texturing and vegetation. Exterior areas are also expected to be more organic and have "empty" space; you have to give the player the feeling they're exploring the great outdoors. Of course, balancing empty space and effective level usage is very important and is a general level design consideration, but it might be a topic for another day...

P.S. Yes, I will be continuing the "antagonist" series of posts... I've got a few partially completed but I'm still not quite happy with my descriptions and assessments yet.