Sunday, August 24, 2014

Super Nerd Sundays Presents: On Dragon Based Boss Fights!

The phrase "dragons are cool" verges on tautology; as far as mythos lauded by contemporary society gp dragons rate close to Jesus in terms of appeal.  People like dragons.  They like the image of them, the iconography of them.  From noble, sentient creatures to simple beasts hellbent on consumptive destruction, dragons manifest themselves in every cultural arena, saturating our collective consciousness even as their qualities shift to occupy the needs of their cultural container.

This pattern saturates video games as well, but there's a core quality to dragons that manifests itself in that choicest of genres, something that makes them more than just awesome placeholders, and it's what I'd like to briefly discuss today: dragons are uniformly awesome boss fights.  Even games with dozens upon dozens of dragons hanging out in them, games like Skyrim where you trip over motherfucking dragons, they remain are fearsome foes that you have to test your mastery of the game to beat. 

This is especially true in the Baldur's Gate series of games.  Dragons in the Dungeons and Dragons landscape are often conspicuously absent from the games themselves (but if the game system was just called "Dungeons" it would have a very different feel to it).  The first Baldur's Gate was guilty of almost completely ignoring dragon, but Baldur's Gate the Second was riddled with the fuckers, relentlessly pushing players up against these scaly be-winged foes every twenty minutes.  A full playthrough of the game doesn't require fighting any of them, but each of them constituted an optional boss fight that was as difficult as any of the plot-required fights in the game proper.  And unlike the other punishing optional fights of Baldur's Gate 2, made challenging largely because of enemies effectively cheating at the game, the dragon boss battles had a phased, paced sense to them that made them simultaneously desperate and soothing: sure, you were fighting a dragon, an armored lizard tank that spit spells at you, but the dragon was, in some sense, fighting fair, even when he fought your entire party.  It's not like he was just spitting out imprisonment spells endlessly or something.  These were fights that tested your ability to synergize your party.  That Cavalier Paladin?  A must for her fear immunity and class-granted AOE removal spell.  That Rogue?  Going to deliver some choice backstabs and trap damage.  That Archer Ranger?  Making it rain arrows while the tail swipe and wing gusts from the dragons make all the melee damage scatter.  And so on: where other optional boss fights oriented themselves around finding one trick and exploiting it, the dragon boss fights were about testing your mastery of a game's systems.  Even in my new playthroughs, with my jacked party and encyclopedic knowledge of the game to draw from, there's still a tension to every dragon battle I engage in, one that only resolves when I'm standing atop a bescaled corpse, rifling through its pouches or wing folds or whatever to see what all the fuss was for.

There's a sensibility to dragons as boss monsters that just works, something about how they can engage with multiple foes, on multiple fronts, without losing any of that personal touch or intimidation.  Neverwinter, which I am unfortunately still playing, managed to build an entire expansion around dragon boss fights, and it's actually one of the better things they've done.  Dragons as boss monsters require a kind of collaborative play that is simultaneously intuitive and surprising: players seem to ring dragons by reflex, swarming them like insects, bravely holding their attention, darting in and out of the red circles they drop like it's no big deal.  There's a sense of community that fighting dragons engenders, a quasi-Quixotian collaborative narrative that draws players in, whether or not they want to fight.  A dragon stands as a sort of challenge: come and get me.

But there are other means of approaching dragons and, by relation, boss fights.  The puzzle based structure can be especially fruitful, as Shadow of the Colossus demonstrated.  While many of its bosses are not dragons per-sec, many of them are dragon-like, and if one wants to be edified by dragon oriented boss battles, SoC is the place to be.  Then there are titles like Dragon Age and Dragon Age 2 mix and match the chaotic dragon beat down and the pensive puzzle fight by adding deliberate MMO-boss-battle-esque phases to the mix.  By tying shifting conditions to a kind of inherent idiomatic nerd-fu, the boss battle simultaneously becomes an intellectual exercise and a calming immersion in cultural comfort food.

That's where the real power of the dragon-boss lies: not just in its ability to semiotically engage with our shared cultural consciousness, but in its ability to generate a new framework for that semiotic language.  By constructing unusual or unexpected events around a set of known cultural quantities, developers can effectively use the dragon as a known quantity inhabiting uncertain surroundings.  The dragon-as-boss trope is an old one, ingrained in Western cultural awareness as far back as Sigurd, so showing us a dragon lets us know what we're in for, opening up an opportunity for developers to simultaneously surprise and satisfy players.

Of course, this can backfire too.  Players will enter fights with expectations, and might grow upset when those expectations are subverted.  We're far more likely to take semantic issue with structures we find semiotically familiar.  Players bringing preconceptions to particular kinds of play might find dragon battles tedious or unpleasant or played out - there are, after all, quite a lot of them in our cultural atmosphere.

But even then, we're left with another lesson, this time in how to subvert expectations.  While there's little to be done to unruffle the feathers of someone who wanted a particular kind of play and didn't find it, a well constructed boss battle that defies participant expectations can be tremendously effective.  It's more difficult to present examples of this, by merit of its positioning outside the realm of the familiar, but something like the final boss battle of Shadowrun Returns: Dragonfall, which revolves peripherally around a dragon and resolves itself, at least partially, through dialogue choices might qualify.  But what excites me about dragon-based boss fights is what I haven't seen yet, what I hope I might see one day.  Sure, I've been through a great many dragon battles before, but it feels like there's always something unexpected around the corner each time one of those beasts unfurls their leathery wing and lets a gout of flame sear the sky.  Assuming, of course, that it's a firey, wingy, dragon.  Which, as we know full well, is not always the case.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Super Nerd Sunday Presents: MWO's Invisible Community!

This weekend promises a wealth of watershed moments for Mechwarrior Online, as efforts to promote the upcoming "Community Warfare" updates get in full swing, with faction events designed to get players into the mindset of the update in advance continue continue.  At the same time, Clan Mechs have finally become available for purchase with in-game currency, placing game changing new content in the hands of a brand new player base, and a leaderboard challenge with the largest MC prize in MWO history attached to it has arrived, and promises some pretty serious payouts to a considerable number of MWO players.  All of these factors constitute "reasons to play MWO again," and each of them on their own has an interesting impact on gameplay.  In fact, the Kit Fox release alone prompted me to move MWO back into my daily game rotation again, as I find myself grinding XP and working to recover the 25 million (give or take) C-Bills that I spent purchasing and customizing each of my variants (those Clan ECM parts aren't cheap).  The fact that this is happening in the late summer, during the game release doldrum that happens each year, is also a welcome shift.  Any of these things, in and of themselves, would be worth talking about.  But what I want to talk about is the way that all of these things are stacked together, and what that says about what MWO's developers are doing right, and what they're still fumbling through.

See, all of these faction events and mini-tournaments and Mech releases all move towards the same goal: they're meant to get players back into the action, to give players new short-term goals or, in the case of Clan mechs, long term goals that allow them to engage with MWO beyond its Bungie-esque "thirty seconds of fun."  MWO, and free-to-play games in general, thrive on that notion of short term and long term goal parallelism.  Neverwinter, for example, has built an entire framework around it: short term goals are highlighted and brightly advertised, while long term goals are concealed in multi-layered menus that, come late game, players are encouraged to delve into to make achieving a number of ever-expanding short term goals that much easier.  In fact Cryptic, for all its poor decision making and inept economic management, has actually done a great job of presenting players with a consistently expanding list of reasons to play, consistently adding content to a core game without disregarding any particular element of their player base.

Mechwarrior Online has had quite a bit of trouble doing the same, however.  During its ostensible pre-release period MWO's devs would dole out content evenly, releasing Mechs according to a well publicized, consistently distributed schedule that players could set their watch by.  Each month a new chassis would arrive.  Every two or three months, a new map would come out.  The new maps and the new mechs let players exercise both short (check out the new map!) and long (max out the new Mechs!) term goals.  Pacing those injections consistently let players know that they wouldn't suddenly have the rug pulled out from under them on any given front.  If Piranha Games said they were going to do something, they ended up doing it.  If they said they weren't going to do something, they didn't do it.

But a number of large scale content releases, first in the form of the much anticipated Pheonix Mech releases, then in the form of the massively successful Clan Mech releases, broke this pace, and began to break the rule of "consistent, reliable content expansion" that Piranha worked out with their customers over the course of months.  Suddenly, months would go by without new content injections, as access to content already in the game for in-game and real-world currency became the new game milestones.  New map content slowed to a near stand-still, and casual, low investment players, the bulk of the player base, began to feel abandoned as whales (users who purchase massive amounts of content in free-mium services), critical to Piranha's business model,  in turn began to dominate the player base.  Paired with a mess of a user-interface roll-out and serious technical issues, most notably and reliably frame rate drops with higher end video cards, it became easy, especially as a casual player, to feel forgotten by Piranha Games.

Which obviously isn't the case.  As a tiny, cashed strapped company, Piranha isn't really going to forget about any of their players, especially when you consider just how small their consistent player base is.  MWO is filled with a number of rotating familiar faces.  Stick around long enough and you'll notice the same handful of names popping up in most of your matches, depending on your time zone and work schedule, many of whom aren't bootstrapping in $250 Clan Mech packages that gave them early access to monstrosities like Dire Wolves.  And community events like the ones they're pushing now are actually a great way to reward loyalty and encourage retention: giving players a chance to earn content that usually costs real-world money with a little elbow grease is a fantastic way to make disenchanted players feel like they have short term goals again and, while investing in those short term goals, present them with some new long-term goals as well.

What's problematic about the way this release is shaking down, and indeed what's problematic about Piranha Games in general, is just how these events are scheduled and promoted.  See, Piranha Games lost their community manager, the man who made sure we knew just what was going on with their product, back in February, as the Clan Mech rollout really started gaining momentum, as the ire for the raw cost of Clan Mech packages started to cause a massive schism between Piranha's whales and its dedicated casual players.  While I can't say I knew Garth Erlam's work terribly well beforehand, his relative invisibility is something of a good sign: a corporate representative does his job best when he generates positive corporate branding and keeps his name out of the media.  It's only when we negative associations begin to emerge that we seek out individuals to attach them to; think of Bobby Kotick from Activision, and how thoroughly vilified he was compared to the more innocuous John Ricitiello.  Both worked in the same industry, but Kotick is known as an infamous asshole, whereas you'd be hard pressed to meet someone who knows just who Ricitiello is, even within the gaming community.  Heck, I had to Google the proper spelling of his name to write this, and I was alarmed to find out he was no longer in his position at EA.  If Bobby Kotick ever quit his job, there would be a god damn parade, with streamers, blocking up Internet traffic for days.

But Erlam's absence is now quite apparent in both how Piranha communicates information to its fans and engages with the release of new content and the scheduling of community events.  The Faction events that began emerging each weekend are announced at the very last minute, making it difficult to anticipate or account for a period of increased excitement for a particular title.  This particular event coincides with a big job interview, another major content release in another game I've been playing, and another short-term promotional event in Dawngate, which was promoted for about a week and a half before it began.  The end result: while I've put more time into MWO than I would've without these events, I've had to alter how I'm investing that time in an unexpected and unpleasant way, and I find myself, by merit of adjacent time commitments, participating in MWO less than I might've if I'd known about the faction specific event was coming a week or two ago.  Would advanced notice have helped alleviate that issue?  I genuinely don't know.  This weekend is so crowded, and life is back to being so complicated that I really can't say for sure.

What I can say for sure is that MWO's lack of community organization illustrates just how problematic lacking or poor communication between developers and fans can prove for a small company.  Piranha has a product people want.  People have wanted it for a while, they've been going apeshit over it for a while too, but developers have been slow in actually delivering on promises of giant robot combat.  Until now.  But even as this robot combat approaches a golden age, a sort of massive metagame that will allow players to establish new and sexy short term and long term goals, MWO continues to lose players.  I've written about MWO quite a bit here, but even my interest is stuttering, not because I don't think MWO is a great game (it's an amazing game) but because I don't know what the future holds for MWO.  Will the UI receive a much needed second overall?  Will the hardware compatibility and optimization issues that plague the game ever be addressed?  Are these even on PGI's radar?  What's going on with Community Warfare, beyond sale events?  I want to know, and advanced knowledge helps me get excited about things.  Direct communication lets me learn things, as a player, that help me get psyched up for more Mech time.  But here I am, left with scraps, saving up my C-bills, waiting for each of the Clan Mechs that genuinely interest me to release, in turn.  This week it was the Kit Fox.  Soon, the Storm Crow will be out.  Then, the Timber Wolf.  And what will keep me playing after that?  PGI is yet to show me, but I'm hoping to find out soon.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Super Nerd Sunday Presents: Wherein Accountability Rears Its Ugly Head!

There are few games I love as thoroughly and completely as Baldur's Gate 2.  It still looms large in my past, a fixed point in a lonely and hostile series of high school experiences, a book I would return to again and again.  Baldur's Gate 2 represents an object, a kind of object, a class or taxonomy of experience, that I love with a thoroughness and passion that dwarfs the majority of my human interactions.  They really don't make games like BG2 any more, but the presence of multiple Kickstarters for titles echoing its style and play, as well as a refrain of community notes fired off at Bioware to "make Dragon Age: Inquisition more like Baldur's Gate" with regard to character generation and open play illustrates that I'm not alone in wanting to revisit that kind of top down, isometric RPG goodness.  What's more, Beamdog's Enhanced Editions, slight spruce-ups of the Baldur's Gate series with small amount of new content and heaps of classic game flavor, served as a sort of proof of concept that the games themselves, clunky and dated, could still prove viable in today's marketplace.  Their reboots, while not enormous successes, were significant enough that Atari decided to sue Beamdog for potential losses incurred from just one of Beamdog's many distribution methodologies.

And heck, I've even had a good time playing Baldur's Gate 2: Enhanced Edition, so much so that I've sunk more hours into it than many other, contemporary games - I'm still on my first full playthrough, and my time-stamp stacks over 100 hours now, no mean feat given the raw influx of titles cluttering my Steam library.  So when I say "I fucking hate Beamdog's Baldur's Gate 2 reboot," I want to be sure that you don't think I'm demeaning the game, or the effort to resurrect it, or the genre, or anything else.  I want you to understand that what I mean, specifically, is that Beamdog's iteration of Baldur's Gate 2 has effectively reminded me why I loved the game in the first place, fixed a number of problems the game had long, long ago, and, in doing so, introduced a bevy of new issues that actually make aspects of this amazing game unplayable.  They took something I loved, gave it to me, and took it away.  Like the ex-girlfriend you hate for years for breaking your heart, it's not that the things they did wrong were so tremendous or so severe, it's that they're offset against some truly amazing moments which make the sting of betrayal into something far more than it ever needed to be.

Let me get specific.

I've encountered two states in Beamdog's reboot, both of which are encountered during the course of routine play.  Simply by playing through their game, as intended, I consistently reach a set of states wherein the game cannot progress or, in each case, function at all.  The first of these fail states occurs when I play through one of the bits of additional content Beamdog has attached to their game.  While accompanying a character through an epic end-game quest, through numerous glitchy conversations and bugged out events, the game freezes out all inputs, makes my party completely stationary, and and removes the user interface.  Imagine the way Baldur's Gate starts off its in-game cutscenes, except nothing ever triggers: the scripting language takes control of the game, but it never fires.  You can work around some of these events, but eventually one of them will cut off your ability to complete the events in the quest sequence.  This has been occurring with such reliability that Beamdog has repeatedly posted recommendations that players use a Save State editor or console commands to bypass the quest altogether, or to trick the game into perceiving a positive result where none exists, which is akin to an automobile company whose car seizes up that they should get out of the vehicle and push.

The second issue is a little more personal, but also pretty prominent: the Multiplayer function included with the game doesn't allow players to play games together.  At least, it doesn't let me and my friend play games together.  Every time we try, his game crashes a few seconds in.  I looked around a little online and found out that this has been a known issue with Beamdog's reboots for over a year, and that no fix exists.  What's more, I found that posts about both issues, which Beamdog promised to fix via patch at some indistinct future point, were actually being deleted by forum moderators "to prevent duplicate entries on the issue."  That is to say that the discussion of these problems had grown so prominent and demanding that it necessitated policing.

Launching games with performance issues that partially or wholly prevent players from accessing game content is hardly new.  Hell, Blood 2 was immortalized by Penny-Arcade not for its game content, but for crippling systems that just installed the game, and that dates all the way back to 1999.  Here, fifteen years later, I'm hardly surprised by unplayable products.  But I am incredibly disappointed by them still, and Beamdog's response is illustrative of a larger problem: developers, even small studios with only a handful of projects reliant on small communities of closely knit fans for support, are now willing to turn a blind eye to this sort of thing, even actively curtail its discussion to make the problem seem less prominent than it actually is.  It's indicative of a kind of impersonal approach to game development that dissociates developers from both product and consumer in a way that seriously problemitizes the whole development schema.  Again this is hardly a new thing, but more often than not this sort of ambivalence is obscured by the apparatus of large developers and publishers.  Launching products that don't work has, for a long time, been the domain of people who can afford to alienate portions of their customer base, people who work on a series of rotating projects, years in development, who rarely, if ever, have time to reflect on the objects they've made  The expectation has been that smaller developers and studios aren't capable of this kind of apathy, by merit of their relationship with players.  A small developer who releases a broken game and doesn't fix it won't inspire confidence, and most developers, as a result, bend over backwards to make sure that the games they release are up to snuff.  In one of the more prominent examples of solid best practices, Ironclad Games gave a free copy of a $60 game to everyone who bought Elemental, so fearsome was their shame at the state of the product they originally released.  That kind of behavior made Ironclad a big figure in the pantheon of minor game developers, and it established a sound precedent for designers: that paying attention to your community and treating them right will help you get ahead in the world.

The expectation now is that indie games are, by merit of their apparatus, artisanal games: hand crafted in small batches by people who give a shit, people who actively communicate with their communities and want to make sure that players have an excellent experience.  Beamdog demonstrated that this isn't the case.  They showed that an indie developer can and will release content that is literally unplayable given an opportunity to do so.  It's tragic, in large part because I cannot finish Baldur's Gate 2's content and Rasaad's brother will forever go unavenged, but also because it has eroded my trust of small developers.  Even as I Kickstart and purchase Early Access games, even as I play partially finished content with the hope that it will soon become something spectacular, one experience like this makes me question my belief that Indie game structures permit designers to do something better.  I won't stop buying Indie games, that's certain, but I won't be buying anything from Beamdog again.

Perhaps that's the lesson here: that accountability for indie developers is very, very real.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Super Nerd Sundays Presents: The Buried Treasure of Assassin's Creed 4!

While I've been gearing up to sink deeper into AC4 I've found myself distracted from every conceivable vector: wrapping up teaching a summer course, trying to become a better Dawngate player, farming experience and C-Bills to ease my transition into piloting Kitfoxes in MWO, and restarting work on my massive manuscript now that my health is stable.  But these distractions aren't the real issue keeping me from moving ahead in Assassin's Creed 4's story; they pale in comparison to the real culprit, the infectious, all consuming, ever stimulating naval combat that saturates the bulk of AC4's gameplay.

From its humble origins as design-afterthought in Assassin's Creed 3, in AC4 naval combat blossomed into a fully fledged game all its own, a sort of marvelously distilled and revamped engine for realizing something that was at best clumsily grasped at before.  Where Assassin's Creed 3 made fumbling gestures at a ship to ship combat and promises that it simply could not fulfill with the tools at its disposal, AC4 has done the unthinkable and turned those crude systems into something greater than the sum of their parts, a kind of game within a game that arguably surpasses the game itself, a game within a game that evokes fond memories of older, sharper games that sucked my time away more effectively than most modern titles I encounter today.

See, AC4's naval infragame is actually quite a bit like the classic Pirates! Gold.  Not completely like it: you've really only got one ship, even though you're building a fleet in the background and, as such, never have to make challenging decisions about which ship you want to fight whom with.  The ship boarding combat is much more sprawling and developed, which makes sense considering the game AC4's naval infragame exists inside of.  And the third person camera that dictates the flow of the action is a big shift away from Pirates! Gold's elemental top down combat and exploration engine.  The packaging, come to think of it, is completely different in nearly every way.  Only the setting parallels directly to Pirates!, and even that's a bit of weak tea - Pirates! Gold was all about building up a personal legend through pillage and conquest.  AC4 is about propelling yourself along a naval storyline parallel to the game's central plot. 

It's difficult to articulate just how AC4 simulates the experience of Pirates! Gold in a new format.  The best way of describing it is to invoke the Machine Spirits of Warhmmer 40K: there's an invisible heart beating deep inside of AC4's naval infragame, and that beating heart, that spirit, is the same that pulsed within Pirates! Gold.  These games are both about equal parts aimless freeform exploration and intense directed combat.  The hunter and the lazy cat sitting side by side in one headspace, striving towards some invisible goal, constructed largely outside of the framework of the game itself.  This is what made Pirates! Gold great: the game itself was less a series of objectives and more a framework to hang elements off of.  It had goals you could pursue, sure, but these goals were all so optional as to make them non-entities within the game itself.  Finding the Treasure Fleet or the Silver Train was fun, but it wasn't a must-do, though you could dedicate your entire session to trying to track down those events and dismantling the galleons that guarded them.

AC4's naval infragame exists in this same middle space, where it feels less like a segment of a larger game and more like an engine for marvelous distraction.  Where before AC3 made naval engagements a means of acquiring doo-dads and bonuses, AC4 has built a potent delivery system for micronarratives that the player can create, tiny stories flowing from single engagements, from fluid exploration and dozens of victories and defeats played out against the backdrop of a grander narrative superstructure.  That this narrative superstructure is occurring in a sort of disjointed time frame amplifies the queering "inactive" sensation that spending time at sea in AC4 presents.  I could, and do, spend hours of playing AC4, moderately high, sailing from place to place, spyglass to my eye, picking out ripe targets for harvest.

And all of this is occurring early in the "timeline" of the game, with only a handful of the absolutely fucking necessary upgrades unlocked.  There are still ships and combat situations that I straight up cannot cope with, heavy duty convoys guarding massive prizes, fortresses with nasty patrols that leap on me the moment I approach and chase me down before I can take them out.  But far from being frustrating, these challenges hint at the depths as of yet unplumbed by my already excessive naval exploration.  I'm looking at this space and finding more and more to dive into, more and more to explore.  From whaling to treasure hunting to privateering, to say "it's all good" is to make the most profound of understatements: it's sublime.  Pirating is fucking balls to the wall, and what's more, it makes everything around it better.  The island exploration, instead of being a chore I go through to get a marker on a progress bar towards completion, is a kind of breather from the intense naval cat and mouse game that I immerse myself in.  The plantations I run through and raid furtively aren't just combat engagements: they're resource hubs for ship upgrades to come.

The naval sub-game of AC4 is everything I wanted in a modern Pirates! Gold game, and then some.  Pirates! Gold was good, but it had some issues with transparency and a weird romance subsystem that I could never actually figure out.  AC4 has made ship-to-ship combat more nuanced and layered, given me more toys to play with, and made fighting on the deck of a ship more than just a tug of war game with numbers attached.  AC4 made it into a fun, frenetic fuckfest filled with gunsmoke and brutal, acrobatic kills.  No wonder I find myself floundering in its tendrils each time I leave port in AC4.  No wonder I'm not even a little bit curious about exploring Abstergo's offices for hints about whatever sinister plot is going on in the background.  It's all just a distraction from my true love, the open ocean.  Assassin's Creed 4 delivered on so many fronts, but it still found space to surprise me by delivering on a promise it never made: to capture the essence of one of my favorite games of all time and elevate to a level I never dared to hope it could reach in this modern era of noise over signal, of style over substances, of Gold before Pirates.