Monday, November 26, 2012

No vision? No game

I contemplated letting this bit of news pass without comment, but it just grates on me too much. As many of you may have heard, BioWare's Casey Hudson, producer of Mass Effect, asked via his twitter account whether the announced Mass Effect 4 should be a prequel or a sequel.

I have a better question: Why are you making Mass Effect 4?

This isn't a question that comes from my deep-seated dislike of the ending of Mass Effect 3. I happily admit that I don't like the ending, but that's not why the question of whether the game should be a prequel or sequel disgusts me. This is a horrible question because it demonstrates unequivocally that there is no vision clear vision for Mass Effect 4. It tells me beyond all doubt that Mass Effect 4 should not be made, or at the very least, it should not be made with Casey Hudson at the helm.

Asking fans for ideas of the setting in this way indicates that either Casey Hudson and whomever else was involved in green-lighting this project does not have a vision for the game except that it must be "Mass Effect 4". This is a clear indication that the only reason that it is a Mass Effect game is because it is a bankable IP that has sold millions of copies previously. That's it. All I can say is: Shame on you.

I have possession of the intellectual property!

You might think I'm being a bit harsh on Casey Hudson here, but he is ultimately in charge of the IP. The buck stops with him, which means he has to own it, and if he doesn't have the vision of what the next game in the series should be, then he needs to hand the reigns to someone who does. If he's not doing that, then he's not doing his job properly, nor is he treating the series, its fans, or the IP itself with respect.

The reason this question is particularly abhorrent because if there is one thing that gamers and the gaming industry as a whole has a surplus of, it is ideas. The industry is filled with creative people and more ideas than could ever possibly turned into shippable games. To have to ask fans "what game should we make" indicates that the people behind the project don't have that vision and don't have a clear picture of what they want to do except to make a game that is part of a franchise.

This is kind the of attitude that gives us the stale churn of titles over and over again, what allows companies to get away with just delivering the same old formula just to get sales. To do this in any genre demonstrates a lack of imagination, but do it in the RPG genre in which storytelling is such a core element of the experience is a travesty for existing Mass Effect titles as well as the RPG genre as a whole.

What do you mean you don't have a story?

I understand that the content of a new Mass Effect game might be a touchy subject given the backlash against the ending of Mass Effect 3, but trying to make another game without a clear vision and strong idea of what game you want to make and why is only going to result in the production of an inferior and soulless product. If there was ever a way to attempt to repeat a backlash on par with that produced by Mass Effect 3, this would be how to start it.

I could make a whole post about the delicate balance between balancing what gamers want and how much the developers should stick to their core vision. While Mass Effect 3 arguably pushed the boundary too far in the latter direction (though many applaud it for doing so), relying on the audience even decide the core setting or the story swings the pendulum far too much in the other direction.

If you don't have a vision, don't make the game. Gamers deserve better, games deserve better, and developers deserve better.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Assassin's Creed Timeline (Part 7) - Gameplay

In this final post on the Assassin's Creed series, I'm going to talk about arguably the most important aspect of the series - the gameplay itself.  I've left this discussion to last because so much of the development of the game mechanics has been influenced by the other factors in its development. The shifting focus of the series and changes in other aspects of the design of the games is inherently related to how the game is played. This truly should allow anyone to appreciate the myriad of factors that have to come together in order to create a cohesive gaming experience. Games should be designed such that all these factors come together effectively.

Initially the game was a concept and an ideal more than a comprehensively designed gameplay experience. It was a sandbox with the primary character as a free-running assassin, and this is entirely reflected in the way the game plays out. It represented an interesting experiment that delivered a large world to the player, but gave them fewer direct reasons to explore it, instead rewarding those who wanted to roam of their own accord. Structured gameplay was minimal and mostly consisted of a small stable of repetitive tasks.

Then the "reward" of long-winded speeches...

Yet the designers recognised the shallow nature of the first experience and sought to expand upon it. This was a vast success in the second game, with the transformation in narrative and gameplay design leading to a superior and varied experience for players. Some of additions were not particularly exciting, races in particular being a somewhat tedious addition, and these rapidly dropped in number in Brotherhood and Revelations.  The increased variety in mission design and even changes to mechanics and structure are of significant note throughout the series.

Providing tangible benefits from doing additional content is something the series has always tried to do, firstly by provided increased health, then subsequently by making the player money, advancing recruits, and allowing them to buy better gear to make the do more damage or increase their health. Unfortunately, the designers have never seemed to quite pull this off entirely successfully. The first game's side content just ended up being repetitive and tedious, and in AC2 it was quite feasible to end up rolling around in ridiculous amounts of money with nothing to spend it on. Brotherhood and Revelations did reign this tendency in by introducing big money sinks, but aside from a few key valuable items, most of the point of making money was to spend money to make more money. The design was such that the goal was just a goal that helped fulfill that same goal, so ultimately didn't feel that rewarding for the player.

Yeah, because that made sense...

Subtle changes to stealth mechanics both made stealth more successful and viable, but at the same time, perhaps made it feel less special and involving for the player. The ditching of the "active blending" from AC2 is perhaps the biggest step back for player involvement in stealth. Don't make stealth a simple "push button" like it was in the original game. That's neither challenging nor interesting for the player. It should require some effort on their part.

The changes to notoriety in Revelations came a close second to this step backwards when it came to gameplay. Managing notoriety was never particularly challenging, and seemingly this led the designers to believe that it wasn't particularly valuable. However, ditching it in favour of templar awareness was a very poor decision. Managing "templar awareness" for the sake of preventing a potential attack on an assassin den was far less personal and engaging, and had less direct impact upon the player. The player typically had to perform a significant number of "unacceptable" actions after hitting maximum awareness to provoke an attack, which meant that getting a full meter didn't seem like cause for concern. A notorious Ezio did potentially have to makes changes to his behaviour (even if small or subtle) to avoid attracting attention or at least minimising it.

The better choice would have been to tweak the consequences of attaining notoriety and making it more difficult to reduce notoriety. The abundance of posters made it a trivial task to keep notoriety low, and heralds could easily be bribed and then pickpocketed for a significant decrease in notoriety. If the number of posters had been dropped, and pickpocketing a herald resulted in a vast increase in notoriety, then a far better balance would have been struck. Or perhaps offering increased dangers but with a potential small bonus to performing actions/missions while notorious would have provided a better risk/reward system for players.

Plus no-one particularly wanted a tower defense minigame...

Finally, it would be remiss of me to fail to mention the combat and assassinations in the game in this discussion. The introduction of additional assassination methods as of AC2 made the series remarkably better. Actually being able to leap and kill someone, or toss them down onto the street while hanging on a ledge was a huge step forward for player freedom. But this isn't the only place where combat took a step forward.

The variety in enemies provided a significant improvement in combat across the series. Requiring players to switch up their tactics a little made combat more interesting, even though the difficulty has never really ramped up across the games. The variety in weaponry provides a range of tools that allows the player to switch up their killing method and their attack style, from fast and furious to slow but lethal. The only potential drawback here is that as the series has progressed, there are arguably too many options with too little difference between them. Why is the crossbow more advantageous than knives, and which bomb loadout should the player use, and how useful are they really? There's a lot of choice, but the differentiation between those choices seems minimal, meaning that those choices don't really seem to offer a whole lot to the player.

Crossbows and throwing knives and assassins... oh my!

The greatest problem with combat is that the player doesn't really ever feel like they are under significant threat, and even when they can take a sound beating quickly (as can happen in Revelations), it doesn't really provide that sense of threat or danger to the player with any meaningful feedback until the player is almost dead. Just like the concept of the animus itself, there's very little "tactile" or tangible feedback to the player. Combat has never been difficult or a challenge because the fighting system has very little individual complexity. There's no combos like a fighting game or real individual move variety like a beat-em-up. Mostly it's a simple choice of "enemy X, attack A", enemy Y, attack B" with little to no difference in overall approach. There's no fluidity to the system that allows for the player to have free flowing combat when compared to something like Batman: Arkham Asylum/City. If the Assassin's Creed series wants to continue to develop, this is they key area of gameplay that designers really needs to concentrate on.

Overall, the first four entries in the Assassin's Creed has been interesting titles. With varying strengths and weaknesses, this franchise offers an insight into how developers seek to change their formula and attempt to keep a series fresh while retaining true to the core premise of a series. If all the strong points of the series were combined in a single title, you'd have a truly excellent game, but the difficulty that the design team seems to have had thus far is picking how to tweak those aspects to obtain the right balance to fit the overall creative direction. I'll likely make another post on how well they have (or haven't) managed this when I get around to playing Assassin's Creed 3 - until then, I'm calling a close to my commentary on this series.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Assassin's Creed Timeline (Part 6) - Presentation

With the Assassin's Creed series, an aspect that warrants particular mention is the presentation of the game, not just in terms of graphics and art style, but the means in which events, characters and landscapes are provided to the player. No, I haven't played the third game yet, so I can't add it to the ongoing discussion.

The series started off with an expansive yet minimalist presentation style. Cutscenes were done such that the player always retained control of Altair with their semi-interactive style, with the only real non-interactive sequences being the panoramic camera sweeps upon approaching a city for the first time, or synchronising from a viewpoint. Even when control was removed from the player, the cinematics conveyed a sense of scale and completeness of the environment. AC1 was presented as a giant and finely crafted sandbox for the player to explore with as few constraints as possible, and the presentation and gameplay supported this.

The problem with an enormous sandbox is that it can potentially result in a limited about of designed gameplay, an inherent problem of the original game. Thus AC2 came in with its expanded story, but consequently a more prescriptive presentation style. The quicktime events of the cutscenes disappeared, which while perhaps making the player feel less involved, it ensured that the presentation of the cinematic sequences were crafted for maximum effect, with every shot delivering nuance of story and character. While this does lose some freedom for the player, the increased impact of the narrative is arguably worth it.

Not having to worry about "glitches" was ultimately a blessing for cutscenes

The quicktime button events of AC2 were far worse, but these (fortunately) happened infrequently enough that the player didn't really have to worry about them, they didn't make much difference to the cutscene sequences, and they were mercifully dropped after this game.

A changing presentation resulted in a tighter experience from a narrative and gameplay perspective, and focused the player on specific areas and zones. Vast areas that were explored a single time (if at all) were ditched in favour of smaller environments that the player could become familiar with. This helped provide additional impact for the more personal story of Ezio, as it helped the player associate with the concept that he was fighting for people and places that he cared about. While this was perhaps slightly undone by the near identical assassin recruits you trained and promoted, it still increased the player's level of engagement with the setting.

Admit it, you liked seeing other people dive off Tiber Island

There was an overall improvement in the graphical quality of the series as well. While the long draw distance to see vast panoramas has remained fairly constant, the diversity and complexity of the environments has provided some really stunning scenes for the player to view. The fact that the series deals with some pretty amazing architecture definitely doesn't hurt at all, but the art team still manage to pull the detail off with definite skill.

The improvement in the character models and facial appearance is also noteworthy, which was fairly essential given the increased focus on a more cinematic presentation, leading to more close up shots of character's faces that requires that higher level of fidelity. The ability to choose a desired colour scheme for Ezio's outfit was just another small bit of icing on the cake that added a little more character.

So many different colours, yet somehow no outfit looks inconspicuous...

In the first four games, Assassin's Creed moved from wide empty areas to tightly crafted cities. While the impressive nature of the level design of the original game cannot be denied, a narrower focus has probably allowed more players to better appreciate the level of detail and effort that has gone into creating the environments for each game. The presentation of the series has improved along the way even if the scope diminished, and it could be argued that the games became better as a result.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

New Screenshot

Just a quick post today in the middle of my Assassin's Creed posts to demonstrate some more of the work I've been doing on The Shattered War. Dialogue has been occupying a vast majority of my time lately, but I've managed to get another level done and have a screenshot for your viewing...

It might look serene, but who knows what's around that next corner?

There are only a few levels I have left to complete, but I'll probably be trying to focus on more dialogue work and getting voice actors to fill the remaining roles for the adventure in the near future.  The vast majority of the dialogue work at the moment is getting the scripts into a readable and understandable format for potential voice actors or getting voice cuts integrated into the game itself. Once that's complete, I'll be putting out a full audition list of all remaining characters that need to be voiced. Stay tuned!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Assassin's Creed Timeline (Part 5) - Narrative and Writing

First things first: Big spoiler alert. I will be discussing the story of all the first four Assassin's Creed games, so if you haven't played everything before Assassin's Creed 3 and don't want events ruined for you, stop reading NOW. 

In my series of posts on Assassin's Creed, I've been talking about each individual game, with some reference to how they fit together. For a couple more posts, I'd like to look at the development of the series of a whole and some specific aspects of design and development. It should come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog that the first thing I want to look at is the writing for the series.

The first game is front loaded with exposition, which is both slightly clunky and very bold. For a AAA title to start off with a lot of dialogue just to set the scene is unusual, but it relies on the unique premise in order to pique the interest of the player and maintain their interest. For the most part, it works. The problem is that this technique is maintained through the entire series, as though the designers either expect players to come in fresh for each title, or to have forgotten what came before. Admittedly, televisions shows often give a recap of previous weeks, and they're often seen only a week apart, as opposed to a year or more as is the case with video games. The manner of delivery in AC is just a little more forced - the writers and cinematic team haven't yet come up with a natural method of giving a recap.

Cue Desmond confused face

An interesting aspect of the writing in AC is that it has multiple layers of storytelling. The primary story of each game is centred around the ancestor whose life Desmond is reliving via the Animus, so far, Altair or Ezio. The storytelling in these is reasonably solid, though there has been a distinct increase in quality as the designers have worked out the best way to use the tools at their disposal to create a cohesive and coherent interactive and cinematic experience.

Outside (and inside) of the main story of the Animus, there are other pieces of narrative that fit into the overall plot. The puzzles that hint to a vast conspiracy tracking through major historical events that many people will recognise helps to push this aspect of the storytelling in a clever fashion. The fact that the player has to work to find these puzzles, and then many contain messages that are encoded with ciphers or written in morse code or the like adds to the flavour, though of course a quick trawl of the Internet can uncover all the answers with minimal effort.

Who would have ever though of delivering conspiracy theories through chess?

Perhaps the biggest weakness of the narrative is that of the overarching plot of the series: some cataclysm that will wipe out the Earth if Desmond doesn't do something to stop it. This was introduced right at the end of the second game, though there were vague hints of this before. The problem with this is that despite every character within the game being so interested in Desmond, and him apparently having many important assassin ancestors, he doesn't really feel that significant to the player. He's a protagonist who the player doesn't really know anything about and never really sees much.

In AC1 Desmond wanders around slowly inside Abstergo. In AC2 he follows Lucy out of Abstergo and jumps around in a warehouse. He does the most in AC:B, where he gets to run around Monteriggioni and around and inside the Colosseum, but then in AC:R does virtually nothing again. The problem isn't just that the players don't really know who Desmond is, but that the modern story is doled out with such huge gaps in between that there isn't any continuity of his story. Even worse is that the intentional ambiguity of the story and the "first" beings is that it obscures key facts. How many people knew that the reason that Desmond stabbed and killed Lucy at the end of Brotherhood was because she had actually switched sides to the Templars? I'm guessing it would be a very small number.

Who are you, Desmond?

The vague nature of the overarching plot is obviously so that the writers can maintain a sense of mystery over the upcoming disaster and the solution to survive it, but this vagueness just comes across as poor writing or their inability to come up with any plausible or concrete. It feels like they're relying solely on this "ancient powerful beings" trope to justify the more extravagant ideas that they can come up with to further the conspiracy and the series.

The "Apple" as shown in AC1 had a vague religious air to it, but this was supplanted in subsequent games by the concept that it was created by some past super race of beings than somehow are still talking to Desmond through his ancestors... or by some method that's never really explained. Inside the Animus they don't seem to be heard by the others he's with, and in Brotherhood they communicate to him directly but no one else seems to hear a thing. It's just... magic. This might seem a little nit picky given some of the stuff that happens, but there's a difference between stretching believability and just throwing all pretenses of reality straight out the window. The later really begins to happen (to the detriment of gameplay) at the end of Brotherhood. Running around and brainwashing/killing enemies using the Apple was not only dull from a gameplay perspective, but didn't really make any sense with what had previously happened.

Don't worry, Ezio, a wizard did it.

The stories of Altair and Ezio, as a counterpoint, are typically well delivered. The way their two lives are brought to a cohesive conclusion at the end of Revelations is particularly satisfying. The only potential drawback here is that it definitely feels as though Ezio's story could have been condensed somewhat. Brotherhood and Revelations may represent different stages of Ezio's life, but the games feel as though they were attempting to artificially extend the storyline without adding a great deal of new content. They feel more like the design team experimenting with new gameplay mechanics while throwing small bits of narrative to fuel experience - ultimately it's just Ezio collecting the Macguffin(s). This isn't to say that the stories are uninteresting, and there are some nice turns in the plots of both, but they really don't push the envelope as much as they coud.

What remains to be seen is how the designers will up the ante with AC3 in their narrative. Hopefully they will push it in a direction that will develop the strength of the "main" plot, or at least provide some clarity in its delivery of that part of the story.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Assassin's Creed Timeline (Part 4) - Revelations

The fourth Assassin's Creed game is the final chapter in the life of Ezio Auditore, seeking to close the story arc started in the second game. Unfortunately for the Revelations (AC:R), it really feels like its primary purpose is to close off those loose ends in the storytelling and to tinker with the edges of the series' formula. I'll be steering clear of any real plot spoilers, so feel free to read to keep reading even if you haven't played it.

The premise of this game is that Desmond's brain is going into overload thanks to the countless hours he has been putting into the Animus machine reliving the memories of his ancestors, so he can no longer tell the difference between his own reality and that of Altair and Ezio. This means living out the end of both their tales, as well as coming to terms with his own past.

AC:R is set almost exclusively in Constantinople (Istanbul), following the single city plan of its predecessor. While the change in architecture is a definite bonus, Constantinople feels significantly smaller than Rome and there are certain areas that the player where the player must traipse back and forth repeatedly. While some effort has been made to speed up crossing the city with ziplines that allow the player to traverse the rooftops more rapidly, these tend to be in short supply in the areas that are covered a lot. Furthermore, it's quite easy to explore a large amount of Constantinople from very early on in the game, and as such players don't get that sense of gradually exploring and uncovering more locations as time passes. While this supports the open nature of the world, it ends up detracting from the game rather than adding to it. Not being able to go somewhere makes players want it more.

Too much freedom can be a bad thing...

Retained from the previous game is the concept of assassin towers and assassin recruits, allowing you to train and call upon assassins whenever you like. The mission system has also received an upgrade, allowing Ezio to manage the assassins to conduct a campaign to regain control of European cities from the templars. This actually makes the missions feel a bit more "real" and make the player feel a little more invested in them by making sure that missions are conducted on a regular basis to ensure a city regained does not fall back into templar hands. Assassins can also go on "master" missions, where Ezio will accompany and assist the recruit to train them, which is a really nice touch. These missions offer a different angle to the gameplay and really let the player take on the role of mentor.

Who would have thought teaching could be so much fun?

The mechanics and controls have changed again slightly for AC:R, allowing players to more easily wield and use melee and ranged weapons in combat. This is a valuable thing, as the difficult bar of the combat is raised again, and there are some enemies that can really dish out serious damage in a short period of time. While this increased challenge is a good thing, the feedback from the combat feels extraordinarily weak. Sometimes it is possible to lose a large amount of health very quickly without even realising, leaving the player wondering what they did wrong.

AC:R also continues to add to Ezio's arsenal, providing even more options for dispatching, disabling or distracting opponents. The ability to easily throw enemies to the ground, use them as mobile free-running obstacles or dispatch them with the countless weapons in your arsenal really gives players the freedom to fight in pretty much whichever style they choose. AC:R does potentially take it to a point where there are too many weapons, so you can end up spending time thinking about your options rather than simply doing. The addition of bombs and bomb crafting adds a new strategic element to missions, but for the most part they really don't seem to be worth the effort and micromanagement required. It's an extra level of fuss over and above the effort of recruiting and training assassins, and that already pulls the player out of the meat of the "real" game enough.

I can do without these

Another major new mechanic introduced to the game is that notoriety has been replaced with Templar Awareness. When this meter fills, then crimes can result in templars attacking one of the Assassin Dens, which are the replacement for the Assassin Towers in AC:B. These attacks result in a tower defense minigame where you must place assassins to defend against the onslaught of attacking templars to retain control of your base. Unfortunately it's not a very well designed or particularly interesting tower defense game, and people wanted to play a tower defense game, they'd buy a tower defense game.

To change up the gameplay, you get a few sequences where you play as Altair and Desmond, which are a nice touch, but these really seem to come too infrequently to feel like the game is living up to the promise of its advertising, or even the premise of its story. The game is still almost exclusively about Ezio, with Altair and Desmond feeling relegated to minor characters. In the case of Desmond, this is actually a relief, because his gameplay elements are like a first person platform game crossed with tetris. First person platforming is almost always a bad idea, and AC:R is not one of the rare exceptions that makes it fun or enjoyable.

And I can definitely do without this

The presentation of the game has been stepped up another increment; the cinematics and storytelling elements are arguably stronger than previous games, and the designers have managed to weave in some really visually impressive sequences and places. A giant underground cavern complete with waterfalls is one of the most spectacular settings in the game to date, and given the locales it has covered, that's saying something. Constantinople itself is wonderfully realised, and definite justice is given to the architecture and aesthetic of the city. The music also picks up again, with the addition of Lorne Balfe to co-write Jesper Kyd injecting some new musical ideas into the soundtrack, which really help the feeling of the game after the somewhat lacklustre music of AC:B.

Some of the gameplay borders on the fantastically ridiculous, but there are some great missions to be had here. One of the amusing highlights is Ezio taking on the role of one of the much hated minstrels from previous games, complete with self-aware out-of-tune singing, indicating the game doesn't need to take itself too seriously all the time. The only real drawback is the "full synchronisation" requirements of AC:R. If the player does not meet the extra requirements of the mission, then they only achieve 50% synchronisation rather than 100%. This makes the player feel punished for not achieving it, rather than feeling as though they gain a benefit for doing so. There also appear to be no additional memory bonuses granted to the player, which means full synchronisation feels like a chore rather than an avenue for additional fun.

Ezio picked the right career. He's no minstrel.

Overall, AC:R is an enjoyable entry in the series, but it's definitely the weakest game except for the first one. It's quite short, experiments with a number of new ideas that don't quite work, but still manages to get the core experience of Assassin's Creed right. The main problem with AC:R is that it doesn't do terribly much new that feels innovative or dramatically better than its predecessors. It's still a lot of fun and delivers more of what players have come to expect, but never really feels like it makes a step forward to really grab the player and whet their appetite for this year's full sequel.

If you've been interested in the series at all, it's worth playing, but it's probably not something that would warrant a full-price purchase. At the very least, it leaves the player satisfied that they've brought the stories of Altair and Ezio to a satisfying conclusion, and it does so in a manner that is fun and interesting to play.

I'll be looking at the series as a whole in a couple of upcoming posts, covering gameplay, presentation and storytelling, as these four games offer a really interesting insight and example of how a series can change and adapt while retaining true to its roots.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Assassin's Creed Timeline (Part 3) - Brotherhood

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood (AC:B) is a seamless transition from AC2, starting immediately after the events of the previous game. A brief narrated video is all the player gets in terms of an introduction before the game thrusts them into the game proper, back into the role of Ezio Auditore and Desmond Miles.

Unlike the previous two games, AC:B is set almost entirely in a single location, the city of Rome. There are a few short segments in alternate locations, but Rome is where the bulk of the gameplay occurs. The introduction is one of these, but unfortunately is one of the weakest part of the game. It doesn't offer much in the way of a meaningful tutorial for new players, but also doesn't really cater to existing players in a terribly interesting or engaging manner.  Once this is over, then the player heads to Rome and the player mostly remains here. This turns out to be both a blessing and a curse.

The exploration aspects of the game are significantly reduced as a result of this single location, and there's not quite the same sense of wonder as exploring locations like Jerusalem or Venice. The modelling of landmarks like Castel Sant'Angelo, Roman Forum and the mighty Colosseum is very impressive and detailed, but it doesn't have quite the large scale spectacle of the previous two games. There are also a number of missions and activities that see Ezio covering the same ground repeatedly, so there are certain areas that the player can feel they are seeing too frequently.

Rome is beautifully created, but I wanted more big vistas

Conversely, this tighter focus means the player becomes more at home in the setting of game, and is able to recognise and navigate via landmarks much easier. This leads to a welcome familiarity, and provides a sense of growing in knowledge just as Ezio would have gained in his journey to becoming a master assassin. The player can learn routes and quicker means to move about, which can give them an edge when trying to escape from guards or hunt a target.

As with previous games, AC:B does briefly remove most of the player's equipment a short way into the game, but even more so than AC2, is very quick to return it again. This is largely a power balance issue, reducing Ezio's health and his better weapons that would allow him to kill enemies with little effort. The good thing is that Ezio's range of equipment is mostly given back fairly swiftly, the main thing players have to wait for is the improved swords, maces and daggers that are faster and more effective against enemies. Even better is that the player is given a few extra weapons with which to dispatch enemies. The addition of the crossbow is particularly nice, especially given it was featured as a weapon in the opening/trailer cinematic for the original Assassin's Creed, but had never been available until now.

About time we got this!

Freedom of movement and the variety of moves available also increases once again in AC:B, as does the difficulty of the enemies. The game requires players to implement a variety of tactics to overcome enemies; a further improvement from AC2 where it was still sometimes possibly to defeat opponents through brute force and/or perseverance. Quick kills and kill streaks pose a new means to end lives, and the ability to leap from horseback to horseback assassinating enemies is somehow far more enjoyable than it has a right to be.

These killing abilities come in handy when attempting to kill a fleeing templar captain, which happens when attempting to establish a new assassin tower within Rome. This new gameplay element involves Ezio trying to get close to the target without being spotted, as when Ezio is seen, the captain will attempt to flee to the safety of the templar controlled tower, and Ezio must kill him before he does. Doing allows the player to recruit new assassin allies, which can be summoned to assist during missions to kill targets without Ezio have to dirty his hands or attraction too much attention. These allies can make some missions laughably straightforward, but it's a nice extra assassination tool to have in the player's arsenal.

With friends like these... we'll need some more enemies

Another highlight is include the addition of "full synchronisation", where extra "memories" (read: missions from Ezio's past relating to a love interest named Cristina Vespucci) become available upon completing a mission while meeting certain additional requirements. These can include: finishing under a time limit, killing enemies in a certain fashion, not being detected, taking a limited amount (or no) damage, among others. This is an excellent way to pose an additional challenge to players without them feeling too penalised if they do not succeed. These bonus missions also serve to flesh out Ezio's character a little more; he really does start to feel like a fully realised character who has evolved from the brash youth of AC2.

One area where the game does take an unfortunate step back is mobile blending, again returning to the simplistic "hit A to blend" option to hide withing a moving group of people. The game also starts to fall apart a bit in the tail end with a series of missions that are fairly simplistic and a little bit tedious. The management of numerous assassins by sending them on missions and training them up can also feel a little repetitive and dull, even though they are fun to call on in the middle of missions or just generally roaming about the city.

"And then I stole his horse... "

The only other real shortcoming is that it doesn't really feel like it offers much that is terribly new or innovative in long term gameplay. There are a few segments where the gameplay is switched up with Leonardo's war machines, or a few different mechanics, but none of these really offer anything that feels like a huge step forward for the series. It really feels like an extension of AC2 rather than a whole new entry to the series, even though the designers did step up a notch in terms of mechanics and even the storytelling and overall presentation feels more polished. The drawback is that the ending once again feels rushed and the story of Desmond is notably lacking in content and context throughout most of the game.

AC:B is very enjoyable game despite feeling like "more of the same" of its predecessor. There are changes and improvements made around the edges, and Ubisoft really seem to have filled out the gameplay and getting sufficient variety into the mechanics and the art of killing to give the player and Ezio a complete and manageable set of tools with which to dispatch his enemies. Stick through the slightly laborious opening to get into the meat of the game, and you'll be glad you did.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Assassin's Creed Timeline (Part 2) - Assassin's Creed 2

Picking up from where the last post on Assassin's Creed left off, Assassin's Creed 2 steps in right after the end of the first game. With a brief bit of exposition, the game throws you into the role of Desmond Miles, and you're witness to the birth of the new "protagonist" for the game, one Ezio Auditore. Then you're thrust back into the modern world, and forced to escape the building of your captors. This would likely be a little bit jarring for people new to the series, but it serves as a quick entry point into the series for those who missed the first game. Tossing them into the deep end, but at the same time meaning that they don't actually need to backstory of the first game in order for this one to make sense. It's a not a bad trick, and straddles a nice line between continuity for old players and introduction for newcomers.

What it does significantly better than its predecessor is the way that it introduces gameplay elements to the player. While Assassin's Creed (AC1) made players go through a series of tutorials to learn the mechanics, AC2 integrates those tutorials with the story in order to gradually add to the player's repertoire and push the narrative at the same time. While this could be annoying if the player were forced to run around as a brash youth delivering letters and beating up miscreants, it doesn't take too long before Ezio starts to become a real assassin and get down to the business of stalking and killing his targets.

Ezio goes from apprentice to master assassin

This is where things start to get interesting. The concept of stealth and getting close to a target have been reworked significantly. Whereas previously stealth involved joining a specific group of white robed scholars by pressing a button, the player is now able to actively and organically blend with a group of people by walking into the middle of the group and keeping pace with them. This subtle change makes a huge difference to the flow of the game, and makes the player participate in the act of hiding within a group of people rather than simply pushing a button and watching it happen. It is possible to fall out of step with the group, which can be annoying, but again this actually makes the player feel like they're actively being engaged by the gameplay mechanic rather than simply pushing a button and then waiting. The similar improvements to escaping from guards (which includes making it a more challenging task) make the player feel more like an assassin who is actively working to fly under the radar.

The game is also fairly keen to give you new assassination techniques: killing someone from a ledge by leaping on top of them, hanging onto the edge of the building and pulling your unsuspecting prey off, or killing someone from the safety of a hay bale. A second blade to assassinate two people at once is also a welcome addition, especially when combined with the aforementioned leap. These were a massive step forward for the series as well. These really add to the stealth aspects of the game, and are wonderful for those players who love to spend a lot of time doing parkour along rooftops. No longer do you have to get down on the ground and potentially lose the element of surprise, but you simply leap down and kill your target in a single move. The addition of poison and a pistol felt less useful and interesting for the most part, but were a nice touch to have something different at your disposal.

Going down...

Timed race missions are a fairly mundane addition to the gameplay, as the scope for varied paths to succeed are limited, so it's basically just learning the correct route to succeed. Courier missions are much the same. The assassination missions are where things get more interesting, and there is a bit of variance in how these play out, requiring the player to use different skills in order to find, track and kill their target.

Timed platforming in the assassin tombs is a distinct lowlight, as are the chase scenes present in these, as catching your prey is a fairly counterintuitive process, and is poorly done to boot. It's impossible to catch a fleeing templar except at a specific point, so even if you're ahead of the game and theoretically have gotten ahead of the person you are chasing, they magically jump forward in the chase sequence to make it "fair". The same applies if you fall a long way behind. The templar will obediently wait for you at the next checkpoint until you figure out the alternate route needed to reach him. It feels cheap, contrived and unnecessary.

Chasing these guys was less fun

While some of these side options for gameplay aren't the highlight of fun within the whole experience, when combined with the main missions of the game, they supply a lengthy and varied experience for players. The game isn't just a visual sandbox like AC1, but is a truly flexible and free flowing sandbox where you get to play out many different scenarios, and you can even attempt many of them using different approaches. Want to stalk your target and kill them in secret? Sure. Want to draw your sword and charge in the front gate, killing everyone in your path? Sure, that's allowable in many cases as well. With an increased number of tools and gameplay mechanics at your disposal, AC2 allows freedom in a way that AC1 never managed.

Another positive I have to mention are the improvements in the presentation. Gone are the length expositional dying cutscenes. While these were okay in AC1, the fact that they were really the only way to push forward the story made the storytelling a bit forced. Also, the fact that every victim would give you a long winded speech felt somewhat ridiculous. The storytelling is much more frequent and you also get some information delivered through conversations you hear while preparing for an assassination rather than direct exposition to Ezio or the player. The experience feels much more realistic and believable, and as a result is a far more engaging tale. The music also deserves a special mention, as there are some truly excellent tracks from Jesper Kyd that play during the game. The track "Heart" that is featured when the title of the game is finally displayed (which takes a little while) is one of the many standouts.

While the ending of the game feels a little bit lacklustre, the journey throughout is superb and provides a great deal of breadth and depth in experiences. It's also quite a long game - you can expect to rack up many hours exploring and completing missions. AC2 delivers on the promise of the first game. It expands the gameplay and mechanics to let the player not only let the player travel and free run through expansive and wonderfully created cityscapes, but to truly adopt the mantle of a master assassin.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Assassin's Creed Timeline (Part 1) - Assassin's Creed

I haven't done a post on general game design in a while, but in my spare time I've been catching up on the Assassin's Creed series and have recently finished the fourth title in the series. As such, I thought it'd be a good thing to do a bit of analysis of how the game has developed over time; a series of posts that are retrospective reviews and part on-going analysis. There are no spoilers in this post, but subsequent posts in this series may have some. I'll warn you at the outset if that's the case.

The game starts off in a somewhat expository manner, explaining that the main character of Desmond Miles is going to be reliving the past through "genetic memory" of one of his ancestors: Altair, an assassion who lived during the Third Crusade near Jerusalem. After a brief tutorial session, the game proper starts.  In a way, this opening set the scene somewhat for the rest of the series. Every game since has started with some exposition to either get players up to speed somewhat, or remind them of what they already should know. This isn't a bad point of the series; it happens quickly, tells players only the essential details, and throws them into the action.

The storytelling is conducted in a reasonable manner, most of which occurs through cosmetically interactive cutscenes. In the cutscenes the player still has limited control over the movement of their character and sometimes of the camera. There are limits on the range of both, but it still gives the player the feeling that they have some control while still retaining focus on the key parts of the scene. It also includes the strange concept of "glitches" whereby quicktime effects allow the player to press a button to get a "better camera view" of the cutscene at hand. While this is an interesting enough idea, it does distract the player from the content at times, and leaves them wondering "well, why can't I just have the best angle automatically?". This concept was fortunately ditched from subsequent games, but so was the cosmetic interaction.

DNA strands on-screen.. Quick! Push a button!

"The Kingdom" which is the open world space between the three cities of Jerusalem, Acre, and Damascus, is one of the most expansive and attractive open world areas in a game to date. It's big, has variety in design, and has some lovely landscape throughout it. It's really a pity that more wasn't done with the area and that it effectively just acts as a treasure hunt area between the cities where all the action happens. It's an area where no set gameplay happens. It's just there for the sake of being there and providing some spatial separation the "real" locations of the game. The level design for all three cities is also spectacular, and the view from some of the highest points is quite dizzying.

Much of the player's time can be (and for the most part was) spent by players climbing to viewpoints, tracking down citizens to save, and hunting through cities and the massive open world area that linked them for collectible flags and templars to kill. These areas are beautifully designed, and even though the technical side of the graphics shows its age today, they are still impeccably designed and look gorgeous. Even now, it's quite easy to stop and admire the handiwork of the talented people of the art team. It's just unfortunate that you're only exploring their landscape mostly to do busy work, and scour it in search of virtual achievements. Yes, that's right, Assassin's Creed has achievements for finding all the flags and killing all the templars scattered about the levels of the game. That's the only gameplay incentive provided to the player to explore, which is a disappointment considering how good it still looks.

Yes, it's a promo shot, but the game still looks good

The main problem with Assassin's Creed is that in retrospective it feels like a tech demo. I enjoyed it at the time, and I can even enjoy it now, but the problem is that the development team really hadn't worked out what they wanted to do in terms of gameplay. The gameplay effectively consists of: free running, exploration, repetitive information gathering missions, and nine assassinations. Ultimately, the bulk of the hours for most players will end up being spent doing exploration, which is a bit of a sad indictment on the gameplay designers, because most of the enjoyment of the game is being derived through the work of the level designers. Of course, you can just run around assassinating guards and getting the satisfying semi-metallic "schink" noise of a successful blade kill on unsuspecting templars, but there's a limit to how long this can last. Especially since escaping any guards chasing you if you happen to get spotted tends to be laughable a laughable simple prospect.

The outside of this, the actual "side missions" the game offers are lamentably straightforward and unfortunately tedious. Saving citizens is a simple prospect of killing a few guards. Eavesdropping for information is sitting on a bench, pushing a button and watching a cutscene. Interrogations require you to walk behind someone, and then just mash the attack button until they yield. Pickpocketing is much the same, except you have to hold the button instead of pushing it repeatedly. There's nothing engaging or varied in these tasks, and the benefits for performing them are fairly limited. Achievements, slightly increased health, and "assassination information" that typically didn't really offer much that was useful for the player. Fortunately, you could get away with only doing a couple of these (rather than all six) before unlocking each assassination. To anyone playing the game now, I would strongly recommend doing on the bare minimum, then jumping to the assassination.

More stabby, less flabby

The assassinations themselves are where the most fun of Assassin's Creed comes from, and it was obvious that this was recognised by the designers, because that's what was expanded significantly in the sequels. They're still fun in the original game. Getting a path close to your target, chasing them down, and ending their life with your hidden blade are... well, being an assassin. This is what players wanted from the game, not "sitting on a bench" creed. The problem is that when you play through the game without engaging in the repetitive aspects of the gameplay, you could potentially get through it in around 8 hours, though I suppose that is on par with (or better than) your average modern day shooter.

The core "historical" sections of the game are also interspersed with modern day segments where you play as Desmond Miles. This also ends up being a bit tedious as well. Desmond walks at an inexorably slow pace, and has very limited interaction with his surroundings. Also, if you don't want to miss out on any of the "story" you have to go around and scour the area he is in whenever you get the chance, else it's quite easy to miss something. Mercifully, the area isn't that large, but that just makes it worse when you're comparing his speed with that of his ancestor Altair.

Assassin's Creed is a game mostly makes you think about what could have been rather than what was, which both a sad indictment on the game, as well as a testament to its premise. Despite it being so woefully thin on the ground in terms of meaningful gameplay, it still managed to garner a lot of interest and a fair amount of praise, which led to the creation of the sequel which delivered in so many ways. That is what I'll be discussing in my next post...

Monday, August 6, 2012

Shattered War Update

After last week's trailer, I feel I should provide some indication at to what I've been doing recently on the mod apart from making trailers and screenshots. The short answer is: playtesting.

For anything of a decent level of complexity, you'll never get everything perfect the first time, and there are inevitably things that require testing and in-game observation in order determine whether they work.  Is the player having to run around too much, does the area feel too empty or busy? Are the NPCs wandering around naturally or should their movement be changed. These are the sort of things that a designer gets better at with practice, but they still need to be observed in the game to make sure they're working as they should.

Too empty? I have to explore to know for certain.

The other inevitability is the presence of bugs. I've yet do any large project where everything works perfectly first time. An unassigned script, an overlooked set of possibilities combining to provide a dialogue choice that doesn't make sense, or any number of issues can cause a problem that will crop up for a player.

Perhaps the most significant problem I found was that it was possibly to short-circuit and complete two quests practically immediately after receiving them if the player had followed a particular course of action beforehand. This was obviously an undesirable situation, but I'd not contemplated the possibility that those events could or would occur in that order, hence I'd not catered for it. A few hours and a large number of tweaks later, the dialogue now had appropriate dependencies to prevent players from effectively skipping and missing out on a large amount of dialogue.

One thing to note from this is that some quests can be solved entirely through dialogue and exploration rather than through combat. I wanted to give players options in the way they pursue a course of action, and have catered for diplomats as well as warmongers. I'm just now fortunate enough to see those different options coming together within a playable product.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

New Shattered War Trailer

In order to showcase some of the work that I've been doing recently on The Shattered War, I thought it was time to release something that people could look at to see and hear everything as it goes on during the game. To that end, I have a brand new trailer showcasing some of the voice work and level design that has been taking place over the past few months.

In addition, for those who want a bit of a closer look at some of the action, I've got a screenshot for your viewing pleasure.

Fighting to save a town

Until next time...

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Shattered War: The Many Faces of Dialogue

When people think of dialogue in a roleplaying game, frequently mentioned items tend to be the content, the player responses, the player's choice and the quality of the voice acting (if it exists). Lower on the list of things mentioned tend to be the expression or movements of the virtual actors, except for when they are notably bad. A twisted head or a cross eyed expression will draw some raised eyebrows, but a wooden performance will not.

Working within the bounds of the Dragon Age toolset, it's impossible to break free of the "BioWare face" for the NPCs within the game. NPCs can gesticulate fairly wildly, and sometimes in a fashion that makes absolutely no sense in the context of their conversation. So such, it comes down to me to manually tweak the animations for each line of dialogue within the game after I've received the final recording from the relevant voice actor. I've been doing this a lot lately, so I thought I'd talk about some of the associated issues in today's post.

Stay a while and listen. Wait, that's not my line...

Now while this might seem like a fairly trivial and insignificant thing to some readers/players, having believable gestures actually goes a long way to assisting the believability of the delivery of the lines. If someone is upset or angry, they're more likely to wave their hands about, and they're more likely to move them faster. Someone who is calm and confident is much more likely to have smaller and/or slower movements while they're talking. Manually adjusting these actions can support the delivery of the line, or help uncover the truth that the character is trying to hide.

However, if you study people in real life, you may notice that some people barely gesture at all. Now while it should follow that some characters should also not gesture, this should be kept to a minimum. Even small and subtle movements suggesting some type of body language can make a big difference in helping convey the line delivered by the character.

The other key part of adapting the character to the delivery of the line is their expression. This can make a huge difference in how the line comes across while viewing it. The exact same line can give  a different impression upon the player when combined with the facial expression. Take the following screenshot for comparison:

Neutral, happy, and coy

These three different facial expressions, especially when carried through the delivery of the line, convey quite a different feel to the player as they are watching. The expression can help convey a subtext for the character's emotions that would not be present otherwise. A nervous or worried expression while talking about another person can help imply that they care for that person, adding an extra depth to the character that never has to be explicitly stated, but can be determined by the player through the combination of voice acting and facial expressions.

So every single line you'll see in The Shattered War has been watched and listened to by me, and for a significant percentage, I will have manually adjusted the emotional expression and hand and arm gestures, and/or body and head movements for those lines. I'll also have picked which camera angle I want to use, and any transitions that occur. Dialogue is a very important part of The Shattered War, so I want to make sure that every single line is as good as I can make.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Mass Effect 3 Extended Cut

In case you hadn't heard, the Extended Cut for Mass Effect 3 has been realised. This is apparently BioWare's "clarification" of the endings that shipped with the game. After repeated adamant and somewhat sanctimonious statements that the ending could not and would not be changed, BioWare have demonstrated that their original ending was poorly written and overlooked basic elements of the Mass Effect lore and setting. However, it seems that the people responsible ultimately failed to recognise its fundamental flaws.

Bandaid solutions were implemented to solve basic and superficial flaws like Joker's inexplicable retreat and crash landing, the magical appearance of your squadmates on the Normandy and why Hackett suddenly attempts to communicate with Shepard on-board the Citadel. However, each one of these introduces more completely irrational consequences and questions. How Normandy wasn't shot by Harbinger as a result of landing right near the Conduit beam it was supposedly protecting, why the Normandy decided to land on a random jungle planet for some rest and relaxation after the biggest galactic war ever, or even why the ridiculous stargazer sequences is included when the epilogues suggest a huge technologically advanced spacefaring galaxy, are just some of the new issues introduced.

 We could always just forget everything after this

What's arguably worse is the fact that BioWare did change their ending despite saying that it was unchangeable. The destruction of the Mass Relays, which was specifically stated as an outcome from the Catalyst no longer occurs. In fact, this line has been removed entirely from Shepard's exchange with it. After BioWare staff insisted "the relays are only disabled" despite the Catalyst explicitly stating they would be destroyed, and The Arrival DLC indicating the destruction of a Mass Relay was equivalent to a star going supernova, BioWare were seemingly forced to recant this assertion from the Catalyst. Other changes, including adding a completely new ending where Shepard can refuse the options presented and instead ensure the galaxy's defeat also is a change to the ending. In doing this, BioWare have seemingly attempted to appease fans, but ultimately all they've done is admit through their new content the original ending was grossly flawed and poorly executed. To simultaneously insist it was not in any way flawed or that fans "misinterpreted" the original ending is a misappropriation of blame. The blame lies squarely on one end: BioWare's.

Furthermore, the Extended Cut does nothing to address the fact that the Catalyst's arguments classically beg the question (i.e. it uses its own assertion as proof of its assertion), are logically inconsistent for every provided option, and the ending is inherently at odds with virtually all the key themes pushed by the series up until this point. The Extended Cut is a series of bandaids across a series of mortal wounds that do nothing to address the ultimately fatal blow to the coherency of the Mass Effect series.

It's okay if everyone turns into this. We have green lights instead of red! That's makes it good! You watched Star Wars, right?

That the Extended Cut just presents a new flaw for each one it attempts to solve is a testament to its failure. I thought for a while on how I would describe the Extended Cut to Mass Effect 3 in one word. Eventually I managed to think of something suitable, though it applies equally to the original ending, and it disappoints me greatly to have to say it:

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Diablo 3 Design Flaws (Part 3)

If the my previous posts about items and general design issues with Diablo 3, herein lie the final nails into the coffin of Diablo 3's credentials as well designed game.

Inferno difficulty, which is the hardest difficulty in Diablo 3, showcases the sheer laziness and lack of consideration on Blizzard's behalf when it comes to gameplay.  As can be seen in this video, Blizzard's approach to difficulty is one of the worst possibilities: Just increase the numbers.

Jump to 38 seconds in: "We doubled it."

If your difficulty is such that designers can simply "double it" in order to increase the difficulty, then you need to hire new designers. Also, if you think that your test team is half as good as your playerbase, then you probably need to hire better testers. There is absolutely no excuse for this type of laziness. It is indefensible.

Nor is there a justification for taking skills and dramatically reducing their effectiveness, even doubly so when there is no indication this has occurred. On Inferno difficulty, life steal operates at 20% efficiency. i.e. A weapon with 3% lifesteal per hit will drop to 0.6% per hit on Inferno. However, there is no indication that this occurs, so it is up to the player to realise (and calculate) this based on observation. Despite this being grossly misleading for the player, it raises serious questions about the competency of the design team. If a skill must suddenly be rebalanced by such a huge amount upon changing to the highest difficulty level, then this indicates a gross imbalance in the difficulty balance before or after this change. A well designed skill and power curve should not require such colossal changes, particularly in a single hit.

The real issue here is that Blizzard and Diablo 3 are both suffering from an ingrained and systemic case of duplication. There is virtually no inspiration and practically nothing original in the concepts that have been put forward in the game. Arguably the special abilities of the boss monsters/elites are somewhat new, but these really don't add a whole lot of depth to the gameplay in most cases. Teleporting and vortex monsters simply making it frustrating for characters attempting to maintain distances, and abilities like jailer and waller often constraint and/or stop movement entirely, which is one of the few tactics at the disposal of players given the extremely small usable skill set that players have available to them.

Let's just add more stuff, shall we?

The above monster can trap with walls so you can't run away, make you lose control and your hero run away when it hits you (although you'll get trapped because of the aforementioned walls), throw grenades that do lots of damage if you happen to get away (which will be guaranteed to hit you if your hero is uncontrollably running away), and has minions that you can't hurt but can also throw grenades and make you run away scared. The "good" news is that this isn't the hardest combination of enemy abilities you'll face.

Instead of coming up with new ways to increase the difficulty of the game and actually let or make player develop new strategies, they just tack more of the existing modifiers that players have already seen onto those enemies. This is the most arbitrary and simplistic way of increasing difficulty, and can lead to some combinations that for all intents and purposes, are effectively unbeatable. Certain skill combinations effectively lead to certain, unavoidable death for virtually all characters.

In a recent patch, Blizzard reduced the benefits of running Act III (particularly on Hell difficulty, which comes before Inferno), because "too many people were farming it". This is exactly the wrong approach. Instead of making such areas less appealing, they should instead be focusing on how to make other areas MORE appealing. Why aren't people trying to go through Act IV? Is it perhaps because it is ridiculously short in comparison to the other acts? I'd suggest so. Why aren't people playing Act I Inferno instead? Probably because the difficulty curve takes a massive jump that most players can't cope with, forcing them to farm in Hell difficulty, leaving them with the undesirable option of Act IV or going to Act III. I know which one I want to pick.

More spiders please

Act 4 is annoying because of the tactics employed by several of the bosses. As a ranged character, the two major demons before Diablo, Rakanoth and Izual, feature the ability to deal massive, unblockable damage from a distance that is liable to kill or seriously wound the character. For a start, this is awful design, but what's worse is that Diablo himself can actually turn out easier by compasion. Even more galling here is that Diablo does hardly anything significantly different from his incarnation in Diablo 2. Given at the end of the game he has absorbed the essences of all the other major demons, the fact that he has virtually no new tricks up his sleeve is pathetic. This is in fact representative of the real problem with Diablo 3.

Diablo 3's biggest crime is that it is little more than a reproduction of Diablo 2. Act 1 is a similar to Act 1 from Diablo 2 - dark forests, caves, a monastery, Tristram. Act 2 is roughly the same as Diablo 2 - another desert city, parading through its sewers and palace, and an ancient mage stronghold. Act 3 is mostly a reproduction of Diablo 2's Act 5, or the Lord of Destruction expansion - with a army battle, a frozen wasteland and caves, and a descent into a hell. Act 4 is heaven corrupted, which is again similar to Act 4 from Diablo 2. There is nothing new in the level aesthetics for a game that has been in development for years. Taking inspiration and referencing previous titles in the series is fine, but copying them wholesale is nothing short of insulting.

Copying your own expansion pack is really the best you could come up with?

Diablo 3 effectively just revisits old locations rather than providing something genuinely new to players. Its locales are the same, the majority of its monsters are the same and even behave in almost exactly the same way as they did before. Act 1 and Act 3 even occur in previously visited places. Is the world of Sanctuary created for Diablo so small and uninteresting that the game can't explore new places and characters? The question this raises is what is actually new in Diablo 3? Unfortunately, the only honest answer is "very little". A lack of originality and new ideas can be seen all throughout the game. Whether from the characters classes, loot structure, the items and bonuses on them, the monsters and areas that just feel like copies of previous games, everything demonstrates a complete lack of originality. Effectively, Diablo 3 has more or less just copied all of its idea from Diablo 2. For a company like Blizzard, this is appalling. It has millions of dollars in its coffers, and has spent years working on this game, yet all it can come up with is something that feels like a twelve year old game with a new coat of paint.

I got my money's worth out of Diablo 3, but it's left a bitter taste in my mouth. There's no real depth to the game, and it offers nothing more than a continuous grind to try and roll a lucky number on the item generation slot machine. The simplistic and inequitable gameplay from enemy abilities and lack of any meaningful strategies makes the Diablo 3 experience shallow and repetitive after a while, and presents very little for players after they've reached the maximum level in the game. As a game focussed purely on grind, there is no clear desirable goal to reach for players, merely the lure of "better" items at some point should they be persistent enough. This is the most crude and base player objective in a game: repeat what you're doing so you can repeat it again but more easily. Blizzard should be able to do better, and so should players. I'm glad I experienced Diablo 3, but only because it provided me more lessons on how bad game design. That said, I'm disappointed that I was one of the people who contributed to the game being a success. It doesn't deserve to be.

If you're thinking about buying Diablo 3, do yourself a favour and don't. Go back and play Diablo 2 again, or maybe Torchlight, or wait for Torchlight 2. You'll get similar gameplay and you won't be supporting a major publisher producing stale, self-derivative work. Games and gamers deserve better.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Diablo 3 Design Flaws (Part 2)

Here I'll take a grabbag approach to Diablo 3's problems, focussing on a few more key areas.

Plot and writing
Writing has never been Diablo's strong suit. The writers have tried somewhere to create a setting, and in that there is some vague success, albeit in a fairly generic fantasy style. However, Diablo 3 really draws a short straw when it comes to writing. Which would be so bad if it wasn't actually trying to pass itself off as having good writing. It's obvious that it's trying to be well written and have a plot that is engaging to the player, but in no way does it succeed. Blizzard have been asked questions about the quality of writing, but have insisted that they have mostly received praise for their writing. How anyone could possibly praise the writing in the game beggars belief, and this kind of hollow self-praise does nothing to further the gaming industry's reputation as far as producing good writing is concerned.

Perhaps two of the most laughable things (and there are many) are the demons Belial and Azmodan, who are supposedly known for their skills in deception and strategy respectively. Yet neither of these demonstrate any whit of either trait. The demon Belial poses as the junior ruler, Emperor Hakan, although it becomes patently obvious to the player that this is the case. For a demon who is meant to be a master of lies, his deception is so transparent that even the player's character isn't fooled, and calls out the trick at the end of Act in what is obviously intended to be a reveal for the player. In the next act, the "master strategist" Azmodan simply places obstacle after obstacle in the hero's path, and is so stupid as to effectively tell them what they need to do next. He is even so foolish and brazen as to tell the player that he sent an enemy to destroy from the inside via the basement of the castle the player is defending. No master of strategy would ever tell their adversary their true plans and actions, yet Azmodan does this virtually every time he speaks.

 Watch as I reveal my entire battle plan!

Always online
Yes, many, many people have already complained about this, but there is really no excuse Blizzard can come up with that should be acceptable for users. Their prime argument is to stop people from hacking/glitching the game and producing items to then flood the auction house. That is a developer problem, and as such should not force a problem onto the users. Variable latency (or any latency at all) can cause player issues, hit detection, lag spikes, or being unable to play the game at all. Preventing piracy is another rationale for this approach, but why is it that every approach produced so far to combat piracy in games has a greater negative effect on legitimate owners of a game than those who pirate it? I have a fairly good Internet connection, but I still occasionally suffer from wonderful issues like this...

No, that's not Diablo 3 music. It's much more interesting.

Useless items and modifiers
I find it hard to believe that for all the advancements we've had in games and technology and the myriad of clones and failings we've seen, that action RPGs still insist on having magical modifiers that are completely useless. No one likes getting a magic item that is completely useless, as it ruins the enjoyment of obtaining the item. No, not every item should be excellent, but no individual property on an item should be useless to every single player. One of the best cases within the genre is "damaged returned to attacker" modifiers. This is where an enemy is damaged upon dealing damage to the player. It needs to be removed from the genre. No ifs, no buts, no maybes. Get rid of it. 

To anyone who has played an Action RPG, this has almost universally been considered an utterly useless attribute on any gear. It's simply not a useful proposition, and Diablo 3 does nothing to improve that. At higher levels, you can find gear that reflects a couple of hundred points of damage if you're lucky. However, monsters have tens of thousands of hitpoints, meaning it would take dozens of hits to even have an appreciable effect on their life. Of course, it's not possible for characters to take dozens of hits, making this statistic worthless. The genre is all about dealing damage to enemies and trying to minimise the damage the player takes, and reflecting maybe 1% of an enemy's total health when each of their hits likely dealing 10% or more to the player is nothing short of worthless. Blizzard's insistence on keeping this modifier in demonstrates a lack of imagination.

Even at level 7, that returned damage is useless

The Auction House
This is where Diablo 3 really shows it true colours, and it is found wanting. The auction house allow people to purchase items for money they've earned in the game, buying their way to advancement through virtual or real currency. In essence, this gives the player the option of convenience to obtain items from others than would take a lot time for them to find. However, this highlights the vapid nature of Diablo 3: it is nothing more than a grind. Kill monsters over and over in order to be lucky enough to find an item you want/need to progress, or simply pay to do so. Kill monsters over and over until you make enough money to buy the thing that you want/need.

Roll up, come get your items here!

This demonstrates that gold farming has effectively become the player's job. Repeat a mindless and fairly menial task over and over again until you are fortunate enough to make sufficient money to obtain something you want/need. I thought games were supposed to be entertainment, fun, and enjoyable, not a repetitive task requiring no real thought or skill. Diablo 3's Auction House says otherwise. It says they're all about grinding and making money. If that's the case, count me out.

In the next post, I'll be bringing these points together (and a couple more) to point out the ultimate flaw of Diablo 3.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Diablo 3 Design Flaws (Part 1)

I've spent far too much time playing Diablo 3 since it was released. Blizzard have once again recreated their magic formula to try and addict people to playing a game over and over again in search of "the next great bit of loot" that the Action RPG genre is famous for. The problem is that it's awful. It's addictive, I want to play it, but it suffers from some massive design issues that are truly terrible. I'm going to discuss some of the games issues, in the next few posts, but today I'm going to start with items.

For anyone who played Diablo 2, they remembered traveling Act 1 and getting a set item or maybe even a few. If you were lucky, you might get a unique item with some cool statistics or bonuses you couldn't get elsewhere. Some of these were quite powerful and you might end up using them for quite some time, others were viable if you pursued a particular style of play or tried something a little different to normal. Either way, they added flavour and were something that spiced up the play experience. Players would talk about how they used particular set items or uniques in a fun way. It made the play experience more interesting.

A lower level set item from Diablo 2

In Diablo 3, Set Items and Legendary (equivalent to D2's uniques) items are rare. I'm not talking "rare" as in yellow items which are called "rare", even though you're liable to get at least a couple in your inventory every single run. I'm talking seriously rare. I'm talking you can play for in excess of 100 hours and never see one drop. There's very little chance that a standard player will see even a single set item drop, let alone be able to form a complete set without doing some serious gear grinding. There are also significantly fewer sets around, and the bulk of them are only available on the hardest difficulty level rather than allowing players to find some of these as they level up.

Now, this might all be somewhat acceptable if these items possessed power commensurate to their rarity. The sad truth is that they don't. Even worse is that their power is not even remotely close to justifying their rarity. In virtually all cases, these items will be worse than the rare items that your character is wearing, and even quite possibly worse than blue items your character may have recently acquired. In short, these extremely rare and hard to find items are mostly useless. Yes, Blizzard have said they will improve these items, but the fact they didn't realise how pathetic they were says a lot.

 Legendary items... currently a bit of a waste of time

Presumably this exists as backlash against the perceived problem of World of Warcraft and Diablo 2 whereby unique, set items, crafted items and runewords became the ultimate items for everyone to aim for. Once these items were obtained, there was nothing else for the player to do because they had obtained the optimal loadout for their character.

This arguably indicates Blizzard's ultimate problem and the design flaw of their game, and potentially the entire Action RPG genre. The genre is a grind. It is a grind for the best loot, the biggest numbers. If the biggest numbers have been obtained, then there is no point for players to keep playing. Blizzard have recognising that their Legendary/Set Items are underpowered and working to fix this issue fails to realise the true fault with their design.

The ARPG genre needs to improve. This is Blizzard's chief failure with Diablo 3. They brought this genre to the fore with the original Diablo. They made numerous changes and significant improvements to the formula with Diablo 2. With Diablo 3, they've failed to do much except serve up exactly the same formula as before. New difficulty level? That's okay, just increase the numbers: more damage, more HP! That was okay in 2000. It's been 12 years since then, so it's time to evolve the genre a little. There are indications that they had some vague understanding of this. The concept of not having to rebuild a character because you picked some bad skills is a good one. The abilities they added to bosses to force different strategies helped modify gameplay a little (though their execution was flawed in this regard, they did have the right idea). The problem is that there isn't enough of this approach. By and large, it's simply a "make the numbers bigger" approach... and it's simply not damn good enough.

Implement real difficulty? Naaaaaah. Just make the numbers bigger!

The reason why Diablo 3 ultimately falls short of what it should be is because Blizzard focussed on grinding as the core aspect of the gameplay rather than the action of playing the game itself. The problem is that Diablo 3 is designed with a World of Warcraft (WoW) mindset. Inferno (the highest difficulty level) is designed to be a difficulty that will force players to grind over and over again in order to get gear with high enough numbers that will allow them to reach the "end" of the game. This is much like how many of the quests in World of Warcraft required months and months of communal grinding to obtain the gear necessary to complete them, (until complaints saw those tasks become easier) the optional content/tasks that can only be completed through ongoing commitment, and time or date based challenged and achievements. All these things are designed to keep people subscribed and keep them paying money. It's designed around a collective mindset and an inherent social gameplay design. Diablo 3 has none of these things.

The social aspects of Diablo 3 are minimal. Yes, you can play with your friends, but it's not an inherently social game that requires player cooperation, unlike WoW. Many/most things can be done solo, and it can actually be easier this way. This isn't the case in WoW. Raids are not designed to be run solo. Despite its forced online requirement and the multiplayer aspects of the game, many people still perceive Diablo 3 as a single player experience. Many people want to "take down boss X on their own" because it seems like a rite of passage. Having someone help you would be the "weak" option. When the game first game out, players in a group would see significantly better drop rates of items, which encouraged group play. Now, that bonus appears to have been dropped, and bonuses to magic find are split across a group. So unless someone has a higher magic find percentage than you, you can actually be worse off than if you were by yourself.

"Real players" kill Azmodan solo

Compare this to WoW, which encourages and fosters people to cooperate, because no one can learn all professions, and you can always trade favours with friends or guildmates who have different skills to you. The grind exists as part of a social dynamic that allows you and your friends to cooperatively improve and succeed. The grind is a shared task whereby you and your social group improve together. The lack of the strong social aspect of Diablo 3 is why the grind feels so impersonal, and the Auction House exacerbates this problem. Why? Because your friends probably can't help you. They might be able to find something better than your current gear, but that's not likely to be the case, unless they're more advanced than you. Finding better gear is an extremely challenging task, because quite often the gear required to succeed in an area is not found until you are in that area. Thus getting items from other players often makes the player receiving an item feel like they're getting hand-me-down or otherwise "gifted" something that is an advancement rather than earning it.

Diablo 3 rarely fosters the personal touch of a mutually beneficial exchange whereby two friends can both give each other items that significantly improve each other's characters. Blizzard have failed to understand that exchange is what made the social dynamic of WoW function successfully. Despite the griefers, the rage, the grind, WoW was successful because it got people enjoying a gameplay experience of working together and helping each other. The unfortunate reality is that opportunities to do that in Diablo 3 are very limited. The loot you get while adventuring together with your friends might be better than your current gear, but it typically takes a lot of grinding in order to do so to get the gear you need to progress.

Unfortunately, Diablo 3's design issues don't end there, even though this post has reached its limit. Stay tuned for more comments soon...