Auro: Doing It Right

Auro Title

When I browse around gaming forums and subreddits, I see a lot of people asking the same question:

“What are other games like _______?”

It’s a fair question, and it makes sense. People are generally aware of their own tastes, for the most part. However, without an understanding of why they like what they like, people have to instead make comparisons and just hope that’s good enough. People might call Borderlands a mashup of Diablo and Call of Duty. Unturned might be called a mashup of DayZ and Minecraft. But is the actual experience of playing any of those games really similar to the games they come from? Do you play Call of Duty for the same reasons you play Borderlands? What exactly does Unturned have to do with Minecraft? You could really go wrong making recommendations based on visual elements or theme when the primary driver of the experience is the rules of play. What you can and can’t do, what you’re asked to do, and how you decide to do those things are what shape the actual player experience much more than theming alone. With that in mind, I want to talk to you about a game where what you do is actually unlike anything else I’ve ever played – Auro: A Monster-Bumping Adventure by Dinofarm Games. Continue reading

Leveling Systems Part Two: Where We Could Go From Here

Level Up Part 2

In part one of this article, A Brief History of Leveling Systems, I talked about the problems that video games have had in implementing the D&D leveling system. While it may seem to have made sense to turn RPGs into video games, designers didn’t consider how different a social tabletop game and a single-player video game truly are. The game systems designers ended up making were clumsy and shallow, and they unwittingly paved the way for the skinner box apps of today. Rather than designing sophisticated game systems, designers accidentally got sidetracked by what seemed to work on audiences and thus sold many copies. The ultra-monetization of games has brought with it the need to continually produce commercially successful games regardless of the content, and it has probably done more harm to the art than good. It has certainly skewed our understanding of design as well as our priorities as developers. I certainly noticed a strangely happy vibe from the author of the Puzzle & Dragons breakdown.

That’s not to say that leveling systems should never be included in a video game. Indeed, computers are far more efficient at running complicated, number-based game systems than a human with paper and pencil could ever be. It does mean, however, that the game system needs to change in order to accommodate its new medium. If we take some time to really understand these game systems, we can make games that leverage our favorite genre tropes effectively while maintaining the integrity of the core game. In fact some games have even taken those first steps, though they are rarely given credit for their vision. Continue reading

A Brief History of Leveling Systems

Level Up

Dungeon Master: “On your way out of town, you catch sight of a strange flying ship, held aloft by propellers, making its way across the sky,”

Frye: “Woah, cool! We totally follow it!”

DM: “It was flying out past the bay inlet, and as you reach the water’s edge, you can only just see the airship as it heads for the horizon.”

Mary: “I wonder what that was all about. Maybe there’s more of them!”

DM: “As you wait on the beach for another ship, you hear a squishing noise behind you. You turn and see three disgusting slime creatures with faces creeping toward you.”

Greg: “Slimes? Whatever, we got this! Everyone roll initiative!”

DM: “Okay, looks like you go first. What do you do?”

Frye: “I roll a critical hit is what I do! Check it! Booyah!”

DM: “You do zero damage to the slime.”

Frye: “…what?” Continue reading

DuckTales: When Scoring Goes Worse

As a kid, I was obsessed with video games. When I wasn’t playing, I was thinking about them, talking about them, and most of all reading about them. I would read any sort of literature I could get my hands on. I’d read game manuals over and over again, memorize strategy guides, and I even found a strange hard-cover book in the library with tips on how to beat over a hundred games from the Apple II era. And of course, I read Nintendo Power any chance I got. Just looking at the maps for the video games it featured felt almost as real as actually playing them.

But there was one section of old issues of Nintendo Power that sort of bothered me: the ‘NES Achievers’ section. Readers would write in to the magazine with their high scores, gaming accomplishments, and presumably some proof of their feats. It wasn’t the fact that these readers were receiving accolades for their video game prowess that bothered me, it was the accomplishments themselves. Some of them were easy enough to understand: Dragon Warrior – Finished. Tetris – 754,811.

Mega Man – 6,695,000

Wait, what? Continue reading

Spelunky: When Scoring Goes Bad

Spelunky Competition

Spelunky is probably my favorite PC video game of 2013 (pending when I finally give Divekick a try). There’s a lot of good stuff going on in the gameplay – find your way down through randomly assembled platforming configurations and collect as much treasure as you can. You have a clear goal, but how to pursue that goal is ambiguous, the way hazards can combine are treacherous, and the ghostly dread of the soft time limit adds a sharp tension to every level you attempt. It has all the trappings of a great game you can play basically forever. However, there was one feature that really stood out to me when I began playing: the Daily Challenge. A master server randomly generates a single configuration for the day, and all players get exactly one chance to score on it. It nicely counters the random arrangement and allows players to directly compete on an equal footing while still keeping the core gameplay completely intact.

I loved it – it was exciting to boot up the game each day to try my hand at today’s challenge. Knowing that my one shot for the day was on the line added even more tension to the run, and it really brought out my best. I really had to play things smart – I had to know when to take a big risk with low resources and when to just move on, when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. It seemed like the game was at its best. Then I began to see a disturbing trend in the high score list for each Daily Challenge. That’s when I realized that I was playing all wrong and came to a surprising conclusion:

Daily mode as implemented in Spelunky is actually a bad idea. Continue reading

World of Warcraft: A Case Study in Design Focus

WarcraftLogoFinal

With a peak subscriber rate of twelve million players and a rotating, on-and-off player base, it’s hard to imagine that there are many video gamers left who haven’t at least tried Blizzard’s magnum opus, World of Warcraft. After all, it’s got so many games in it, so much content! It’s got something for everyone, so how can you go wrong?

Turns out a lot can go wrong.

Turns out that when you try to make the omni-game, when you try to have “a little of everything,” you end up with a lot half-baked ideas and broken systems; that when you try to please everyone, you don’t really satisfy anyone. Turns out that you can’t just mix everything together at the WoW All-U-Can-Eat buffet and still expect to have something good in the end. Continue reading