Browsing the archives for the Games category

Masterplan

No Comments
Games, Tabletop, Technology

Sorry for the extended posting hiatus here, things have been busier than expected on the work front.

I’ve been meaning to write for about the past several weeks about a program that I recently discovered. The program is called Masterplan, and it’s a tool for Dungeon Masters of D&D games. There’s a lot of software out there on the internet designed for DMs, and I’ve tried a number of them.

But do I really need software to plan out my plot? No.

As a DM what I need is software that I can use to plan out a plot, create encounters, skill challenges, build maps, write descriptions, store information about NPCs, create treasure, and so on. The jump from doing one thing well to doing all the things DMs need to take into account is quite big and so there are very few programs that ever make the grade. Masterplan is the first piece of software that really seems to integrate well with my workflow as a DM to prepare for gaming sessions.

What’s so great about Masterplan? The key for me is the plot flowchart.

Masterplan Plot Flowchart

Inside Masterplan you can create a flowchart of events that happen in a plot. Whether it’s a scene change, a combat encounter, a skill challenge, what have you, you can enter it here as a plot point. The coolest bit is you aren’t forced into linear plot arrangements. If you want to, you can plan out what happens if the PCs take route B rather than route A, or ingratiate themselves with NPC Z instead of NPC Y.

For each plot point you can add a description, both notes to yourself as the DM and read-aloud text to be shared with the players. You can add a map for significant area features, a combat encounter, a skill challenge, treasure to be found in the area. And all of this is relatively straightforward to do and accomplish, requiring no especially deep knowledge of the program or the 4th Edition game session.

Since beginning use of Masterplan my D&D prep sessions went from, “I don’t know if I can keep committing this amount of time every week,” to about two hours total. Last week I spent roughly an hour writing up descriptions and dialogue notes for NPCs, then spent an hour in Masterplan developing the combat encounter my players would face. The encounter building itself is simple, I selected the monsters I wanted from a list of monsters I’ve imported into Masterplan and dragged them into the list of monsters for that area. For one monster I added a template, which automatically modified the creature in the predetermined ways. For another I increased the level slightly, which caused Masterplan to automatically update the monster’s experience value and defenses (unfortunately Masterplan doesn’t seem to automatically update the monsters’ attacks when levelling them up, or at least not consistently with all monsters).

I then exported the information about that plot point, printed it up, and had a nice little packet of information ready for the week’s game session.

DLC and Me

3 Comments
Games

Shamus had a post a couple of days ago discussing the outrage of certain gamers over the day-one DLC in Portal 2. I’ve been meaning to write a response for awhile, but I wanted to let my thoughts on the matter simmer for a little while before actually writing anything. That and I’ve been unfortunately pretty busy and not in the mood to write much when I have had time.

My copy of Portal 2 has not yet arrived, so this is still a little off the cuff, and I reserve the right to change my opinion later on after playing it. The fact of the matter is, though, I don’t like the idea of games selling me extras within the game. I don’t like the idea that a game was built with the expectation of selling items within the game from day one. Other people may not have a problem with that, I do.

Why? Well, the answer is complex but it comes down to this: Emotionally, I don’t like it. I don’t like blatant product placement in movies or television. I don’t like advertisement in general. I don’t want to see advertisement and product placement permeate games the way they have other forms of media. I think it’s perfectly fine if game developers create and sell DLC — But I don’t trust game developers to be responsible with the power that in-game advertisement / microtransaction models provide.

Why do I care?
I’ve learned to experience games in a certain way, and I enjoy experiencing games in that way. What I mean by that specifically is the purchase-product model (there might be another name for this, however I am not interested enough in marketing/sales or its terminology to care). This is the model most games have used from Kings Quest & Mario to most current-day games, whether they be released as a box on store shelves or as a digital download. There are a couple of other models for games to follow, whether it is an “Arcade” model where players must pay cash immediately to continue, the “Subscription” model followed by games like World of Warcraft, the “Free-to-Play-Pay-for-Advantage” model used by many Facebook games or games such as League of Legends, and so on.

Portal 2’s in-game store may be kind of innocuous and tucked away, but game developers (or more specifically: game publishers) are always on the lookout for profitable ways to get you on the hook. Whether we as gamers like to admit it or not, games are essentially brain-hacks designed to provide feedback to the reward centers of our brains. For some people those rewards might be visceral, cool graphics and moves displayed by your avatar. For some people they might be more abstract markers of progress – A full progress bar. For some people those rewards might be a cutscene to drive the story forward, or for others it might be an achievement on your gamer profile to show off to your friends. The techniques used by games to entertain us can also be used for evil, and as cliche as it is to talk about game addicts, there are games that are literally designed to be addicting. In fact, addicting games predate videogames — You’ll find plenty of games designed to be addicting in casinos.

The uniqueness of addicting videogames over casino-style games is simply in variety. Videogames as a whole can provide a much more engrossing experience than a casino game, one which triggers addictive patterns of behavior in players with a wide variety of tastes and preferences. The hat-craze that took over Team Fortress 2 began as a status-only feature, but later on grew to add real functionality to the game. This hooks both the players who play for fun and want uniqueness or status, and also the players who play to win and want a competitive edge.

I do think it’s in the best interests of players and the industry, in the long term to promote ethical behavior from game developers and publishers. What exactly constitutes ethical behavior? I’m not going to say, because my opinion isn’t the only one that matters. The point is there needs to be a conversation about what actually is ethical for game developers to do within their games and what isn’t. Is it ethical, for example, to give players a goal that takes thousands of real-life hours to accomplish, even if the actual gameplay involved is merely a grind of slaying identical monsters over and over? Is it ethical to sell in-game advantages, and if so what kind and what power?
Games are extraordinarily complex to talk about in these terms since they are so varied, but at least for me, selling me items within the game is a bright-line red flag behavior that I think is too prone to abuse to tolerate, no matter how good the game is otherwise.

Interruptions and Interludes

No Comments
Games, Tabletop

My gaming group hasn’t met for a week due to scheduling conflicts, but we’re hoping to get back into the swing of things this upcoming week. We’re also running into the final couple encounters of the Keep on the Borderlands adventure that I’ve been running, so my thoughts have been turning to what we can do after the adventure finishes.

The first option, which I’m going to immediately dismiss — Everyone rolls up new characters and we play a different adventure. Our group is really just getting into the swing of things, and I think a lot of the players want to continue playing their characters. I’m a little hesitant to continue the campaign onward after the KotB adventure finishes because D&D 4th Edition has some built-in assumptions I’m not really comfortable with (prevalence of magic mostly, and how this interacts with the game world). However, it’s not about me doing what I want, it’s about everyone having fun, so I’m going to ignore that little voice for now.

The second option is that I could run another published adventure. I actually have a copy of the Undermountain adventure from an earlier season of D&D Encounters, and another published adventure called The Slaying Stone. There are two problems posed by using either of these adventures. The first is story continuity: There really isn’t any story continuity, so I’d need to do additional work to try and fit the subsequent adventures into the context of the Keep on the Borderlands adventure. The second is that both of these adventures are designed for level 1 characters, while currently the group I am running is sitting around 3-5. This is particularly tricky because the Dungeon Master’s Guide spells out that adjusting monster difficulty up by adding levels doesn’t really work that effectively beyond a 5 level jump/dump — So I’d need to really think about the encounter building.

The third option is that I could write my own adventure from scratch. I actually want to do this. At the same time, I really need to invest my time and energy into other pursuits that are more important to me than a D&D game. The only question in my mind is whether it’ll be long-term easier for me to write my own adventure than to take the time and effort to try and adapt a published adventure to my purposes. The Undermountain adventure, for example — I’m sure the encounters themselves are something I could easily adjust to make more challenging. But the plot itself, and the characters, present a problem for me. The alternative, the Slaying Stone adventure, could actually dovetail fairly easily with the Keep on the Borderlands adventure. The downside is it’s designed in a non-linear way and so there’s no easy way to adjust the encounters on a per-session basis. I’d actually have to sit down one day and type up a bunch of new statblocks and encounter notes for level-adjusted encounters. That might be feasible at some point in the coming weeks, but large unfilled blocks of time are something that’s a little tricky to come by.

More on the Borderlands

No Comments
Games, Tabletop

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m running a campaign in D&D 4th Edition using the Keep on the Borderlands adventure. Earlier this week my group entered the final “Season” for this adventure, and I figured I’d make a post about it because I thought the ending scenarios are pretty cool and demonstrate some of the neater things about 4th Edition.

Fair warning: Spoilers ahead.

Continue Reading »

4th Edition Success

No Comments
Games, Tabletop

I haven’t blogged much about my gaming habits in awhile, so I’m going to give a brief catch up. The last time I was seriously involved in a tabletop RPG game it was Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition. I’ve played in some 3rd edition games since then, and also played in some 4th edition games, but none of them have survived for very long.

I do like 4th edition, but there are some things that bug me about it. Some of those problems are part of the system, and some of those problems are just issues that arise from how players approach the game. That said, it’s fun, easy to pick up, and entertaining enough. This post isn’t about the merits and flaws of 4th edition though, so I won’t get into much more detail there.

Lately I’ve been running a D&D 4th edition campaign using the Keep on the Borderlands adventure. This campaign was initially being run by another player, but I’m a perfectionist and I felt I could do better, so I stepped up to the plate. Due to attendance issues, players in our group are not always near the same level, so it’s been a bit challenging getting the difficulty level for our players just right. Fortunately, adjusting the difficulty of encounters downward is usually quite easy – Remove a creature or some minions and you’re good to go.

This week’s session, we actually had a full group of players, including a new player. This posed a different problem for me, as I felt the group was actually substantially more powerful than had been accounted for in the published adventure. So before the session began (I was only aware we had a new player joining us when I arrived), I had to quickly do some sheet-margin math to adjust the encounters the players would be facing to ensure they’d be challenging. One of the the encounters for that night was actually against a young black dragon, so I wanted to make absolutely sure that monster was a fearsome and challenging foe.

The thing that impressed me was how easy it was to adjust the attributes of a monster upward in 4th Edition. For every level you’re increasing the difficulty of the monster you: Increase hit points based on the creature’s role, and increase all its defenses. For every two levels increase damage. When I saw that I was kind of shocked, in 3rd Edition D&D building opponents can be a very time consuming process. Granted, this is very simple adjustments of one level, and the 4th Edition DMG even notes that this works best for level adjustments of 5 or less, but I was still impressed.

Due to my adjustments the session went great and was a challenging and rewarding experience instead of the pushover it may have been otherwise.

Achievement Unlocked:

No Comments
Games

If you’ve played any recent videogames you’ve probably noticed that all, or nearly all of them have these things called “Achievements” or “Unlocks.”

Is it just me, or does the entire concept of achievements in a game generally deflate long-term interest in the game? I know it does for me. No matter how amazing a game experience may be, I really don’t want to have to do it 20 times so I can unlock the super-awesome-basically-required item. In fact, by setting up game experiences as predetermined units of “achievement” it pretty much sucks all of the life out of it.

For example, during the Christmas Steam Sale I purchased Battlefield: Bad Company 2 for about $6. I’d never played a Battlefield game before, and so I decided to pick it up. I finished the campaign in one day, then later on went to multiplayer. I actually kind of enjoyed the multiplayer experience, it’s got some interesting ideas that I think have merit (even if the overall gameplay is kind of lame / boring since all the weapons are bullet-based and the accuracy and damage on every weapon is so high that it’s easy to snipe players and kill them with 3-4 shots).
After a few days of playing I managed to unlock all the guns and equipment available in the game. But ever since I finished doing that I haven’t had any motivation to play the game. I essentially “beat” the multiplayer, and there’s nothing left except going for some of the in-game achievements, for example, “Play for a total of 48hrs” or “Kill 200 enemies with land mines” — Those are actually the most depressing, because then if I play the game the way I “want” to, I’m not progressing in most of the achievements that focus on arbitrary tasks. But if I’m playing the game to get the achievements and not how I “want” to, then I’m bored or frustrated.

If BC2 had set things up so most of the items in the game were available from the get-go, would I have remained interested in the game longer? It’s hard to say – To be honest it’s kind of a shallow gameplay experience. But I think if my focus in playing the game had been on intrinsic rewards rather than extrinsic rewards I may have stuck with it a bit longer. (Though honestly it’s difficult to say. Particularly because even as a player with ~20 or so hours of experience I often find myself at the top of the scoreboard for my team, just because I do basic things like dropping health packs, ammo boxes, or motion mines. I don’t know why but the average BC2 player is awful at doing anything other than sitting behind cover and taking potshots.)

In the end, when you go with achievements you’re wrapping up something which may seem like an amazing experience into a mechanistic and dull achievement mechanic. Either achievements are worth something, they grant an in-game advantage which makes them required grinding, or they are worth nothing and merely serve to devalue experiences by labeling and quantifying them.

Starcraft 2 Most Desired Feature

No Comments
Games

I haven’t played Warcraft 3 since the year it came out, 2002. I have, however, occasionally played quite a few custom (or “use map settings”) maps for it. But the stock gameplay of Warcraft 3 never held me, probably because I’m not exceptionally good at it and therefore playing is an exercise in getting my butt handed to me in a hundred different ways.

I do enjoy the game, but I’m just not interested in learning the things that make good RTS players good RTS players – Build orders, timings, and extreme levels of unit micromanagement. In lieu of actually playing the game myself, though, one thing I really like to do is to be a game observer. In order to do this you create a “Custom Game” using a stock map and set it up to allow observers. Usually a bunch of people will join, then you have to work out who will actually play and who will observe, and then you’re set.

Observers can only talk with other observers, and cannot message people outside of the game at all (to prevent cheating). About all you can do is sit and watch the game and chat with other observers. But yet, I find it strangely appealing. Not only is it low-pressure, but you can enjoy a drink or a meal while watching. And although the average level is play is probably a bit under ranked matches, you still get some fairly entertaining matchups. The strategy becomes quickly apparent, and little nuances in play like positioning units, hero or skill choice, and so on start to take on more meaning.

The downside to observing matches is what I’ve already discussed — Setting one up. It’s a hassle to create matches specifically for observing, and it doesn’t make a heck of a lot of sense to force it to be that way when there are no doubt hundreds of ranked matches going on all the time. So why not just allow players to select or randomly observe ranked matches? Concerns over cheating potential could be mitigated by giving the actual players the option to allow observers or not — Basically set your game preference to private or public. You’ll definitely get people who just disallow observing in all their games, but most decent players play so much anyways it’s doubtful they care if anyone sees their games. Seeing it and beating it are two different things.

Why not just watch replays on YouTube, such as HDStarcraft, HuskyStarcraft, or Crota? Well, I enjoy doing that too but a replay is quite a bit different than actually being in the game. Recorded replays are only going to show you what the commentator is looking at, while in an observer game YOU control what you’re looking at. YOU comment on the game, along with other players observing, making it a much more active and social experience than passively sitting down and starting up a replay. That’s both good and bad: If you’re new, you may not understand the strategy. But if you’re an experienced observer you’ll tend to understand what’s going on. And if you don’t — you’ll learn. It can definitely beat hearing a commentator interject their own opinions into the game — There’ve been many, many occasions where I’ve been watching a replay and found myself disagreeing with a commentator and wishing I could voice my thoughts. Well, with observer games you’re totally free to.

Towards a New Equilibrium

No Comments
Games

This is a response to Shamus’ post here, this was originally meant to be a comment but it kind of grew and I felt guilty at neglecting this place when I actually wrote something fairly substantive.

It’s pretty undeniable that there’s significant market forces at work in [causing game developers to minimize investment in the PC]. But I think the bigger factor is just the structure of the studios / game market as a whole.

The console/games market these days seems to be in a trend towards monopolization. You just can’t create big budget titles and play with the big boys without being one of them. At the same time, the gamer demographic these games are all going after is the same, so there can only be so many “winners” even in the remote chance that all games in a given set are good. It really is a winner-takes-all kind of situation because games just take up a lot of time and those of us with jobs and families only have so much time to spare.

I’ve been saying this for years now, but the trend towards making every game into a movie-like cinematographic experience is really contrary to games-as-games. The games that I still play 10 or 15 years after their release don’t need to feel like a movie, they just need good, solid gameplay. Unfortunately this doesn’t quite jive with the lowest-common denominator games-as-junk-food mentality we see taking hold in an industry that needs to encourage gamers-as-gluttons in order to be able to sustain its own massive bloat.

When I first started noticing and complaining about games turning into longer, poorly written and acted direct-to-video movies I felt like I was out on a limb. Yet every year the new game releases get less and less actual gameplay and more and more like a semi-passive movie experience.* With Halo “ODST” or COD6 the singleplayer is going to last you four hours — That’s about the length of Return of the King extended cut.

*Ironically, we are also seeing movies now moving closer to videogames as well. Can anyone deny that Transformers series is hilarious mess whose entire terrible existence is predicated on the acceptance of cringe-inducing filmmaking by the videogame-addicted teen/twenteen boy segment of the population?

And, not to put too fine a point on it, how much work does multiplayer take when most are just recycling mechanics from SP/previous games? Sure, it’s not trivial, but I am surely not impressed when Halo releases a new game with the same set of weapons with maybe tweaks and new bling mapping on the SPNKR’s rocket tubes. And don’t get me started on all of these WW2 or modern combat games that endlessly recycle the same set of bullet-spraying weapons whose only significant differences are in rate of fire and spread. Do we really need another AK-47 or M-16 in a game in order to feel fulfilled?

I really feel like this trend is unsustainable. There really aren’t any huge graphics jumps on the horizon, yet graphics is what has been driving the last couple generations of games. For a long time now, there hasn’t been anyone making the games I really want to play. And I think that is going to get worse before it gets better, because the bigger the game studios get, the more and more they will focus-group their games into targeting the subhuman pleasure centers of the average consumer drone. Those of us who are not content to mindlessly buy whatever has the biggest explosions will be underserved for quite some time — Unless the indie games market can reach us.

Fortunately, with all the distribution platforms these days … Maybe they can?
And that gives me hope. Heck, maybe we’ll see a resurgence of gameplay instead of this constant graphics overload coupled to the same stale game ideas that were cliche even a decade ago. Or maybe some of these companies will realize that cultivating an enduring game community & experience for many years can be as profitable, or maybe even more profitable over the long haul, than releasing sequels every two years and then leaving everyone in the lurch.

L4D2 Demo

No Comments
Games

Despite being underwhelmed with the amount of content in L4D, I went ahead and pre-ordered L4D2. What can I say, the game cost $30 and at that price point it’s hard for me to pass up a AAA title that I know I’m going to like.

My first impressions with L4D2.

Do not buy this game unless you enjoy L4D1.

My second impressions with L4D2.

Do not buy this game unless you can get it at a $30 or less pricepoint.

Back when I purchased L4D1, I was pretty disappointed with the game because it was shockingly lacking in content. Although L4D ended up being a good game a couple months after release once Valve finished the game and added in melee cooldown to prevent it from becoming entirely about tedious corner camping, it was still a shallow and flawed game. Anyone who paid full price for it (like me) probably felt a little bit ripped off (especially when the day after you purchased it for $50 Valve decided to offer it for $25, which is more along the lines of its actual value).

Could L4D have been a great game? Sure, if Valve had decided to continue to support it in meaningful ways. Instead, they decided to make L4D2. Is L4D2 worth it? That’s the question we all want answered. From what I’ve seen in the L4D2 demo, it’s more of L4D1.3 than L4D2. If an incremental upgrade is what you seek, then you may be willing put put down the money for this expansion pack. If you wanted some real improvements and not just finishing touches that should’ve been in L4D1, then you might want to keep waiting.*

* Note that the biggest changes to the game are going to be a result of how the new maps and new SI work. Neither of these are really displayed in the demo, I am just talking about what I have seen from that.

L4D2 incorporates some new gameplay elements:

Pros:

  • A couple of new weapons. Many of the old weapons have been reskinned.
  • You can now carry a medpack or a revival pack
  • In addition to pipe bombs and molotovs you now can pick up and throw vials of boomer bile. These work exactly as you’d expect.
  • Instead of pain pills you can now carry Adrenaline Shots, though the function of these is not obvious (presumably you perform certain actions faster)
  • In lieu of pistols, you can now carry a melee weapon.
  • There are some other upgrades like laser sights, incendiary and explosive ammo.

Counterpoints

  • Basically, all of the guns feel more similar to each other than ever. It’s not even clear which guns are supposed to be superior to other guns.
  • Almost all of the guns feel much weaker, both in look and feel, and in functionality, than their L4D1 counterparts.
  • In addition, there have been some questionable balancing changes. For example, the T1 pump shotgun in L4D1 had 128 + 8 ammo, yet was certainly not overpowered. The T1 pump shotgun in L4D2 has a whole 56 + 8 ammo, which means one of the weakest weapons in the game lost over 50% of its ammo carrying capacity.
  • The revival pack, boomer bile, adrenaline shots, laser sights, and ammo upgrades are gimmicky additions, most of which exist currently in L4D1 as mods. I expected something more from a commercial product than a mod.
  • The melee weapons are a big gimmick that I never understood at all. Melee combat in FPS games almost always comes down to mashing down the LMB, I don’t expect anything different here.

Some additional observations:

  • The UI for L4D2 is almost as bad as the Epic failure of UT3’s interface. It’s that bad.
  • The new characters, from what we have seen, are nowhere near as interesting or entertaining as the original characters. Ellis is the only character who seems to have a distinct personality, and it’s one I dislike strongly.
  • In the demo, the FOV and positioning of the weapons on the screen is terrible. I hope they return to L4D1 style.
  • The maps displayed in the demo are during the daytime. And while L4D has never been a “horror” game, more of an arcade shoot-em-up, it just loses a lot of its charm and atmosphere when it’s set during the day and you realize that the only thing you do [in Campaign mode] is run around and gun down tons of helpless, braindead AI opponents.
  • The new style of crescendo event is a dramatic improvement over corner camping, but I’m also concerned they are going to be consistently too difficult when it comes to expert campaigns and particularly Vs. mode. This is especially tricky because campaign mode now has melee cooldown.
  • The charger and the spitter are really powerful. The spitter is probably too powerful, as she can easily dish out 20 damage in a second or so with no assistance from other SI and at seemingly low risk to herself.

In summation, a lot of L4D2 seems to be gimmicks, and improvements that are going to mostly improve the singleplayer / co-op experience. And while Co-op is fun, the meat of the game is in Vs. mode. Since Vs. mode is not available in the demo I can’t comment on much beyond the new maps and SI impacting that. I am really hoping that they improve the Vs. experience by completely changing the scoring mechanic or at least offering a new mechanic. The scoring in L4D1 is such that you can basically wipe out the entire enemy team down to 1 hp, but that doesn’t impact their (or your) score at all if they find a couple of medpacks before the end of the level. A scoring system that valued good play and not semi-random health pack spawning would drastically improve the game. Some kind of system to discourage or penalize rage quitting and griefing wouldn’t be bad either (or maybe, encourage good play instead of penalizing the jerks).