Random Thoughts – Randosity!

Disney Infinity 3.0 Review: He’s Dead Jim

Posted in botch, business, video game by commorancy on July 18, 2016

[Updated 10/6/2016] I’ve never taken the time to write a review of Disney’s Infinity 3.0 (or any other version) because it wasn’t really worth a review. However that has changed. I feel now is the time to write one considering Disney has recently canned the entire Infinity video game project and it is now officially dead along with Avalanche software’s involvement. Disney Infinity will continue to deliver on the remaining toys and playsets that were in the process of being manufactured in 2016, but anything not already in the manufacturing process won’t see the light of day. Let’s explore.

Focus on Core Business?

That’s what Disney would have us believe. They state that while the 1.0 iteration of Infinity did well, the 2.0 and 3.0 iterations have not done nearly as well. I will explain the reason for that later.

Instead, I believe that getting rid of Infinity is a monetary method to focus on their core business. Well, that is to say they want to focus on their theme park business. Disney is, in fact, financially struggling with their theme parks. Specifically, the Shanghai Disney location is apparently sucking up tons of money and is way over-budget. In an effort for the whole of Disney to get back on track, they are trimming those pieces they feel aren’t doing well. So, away goes Infinity.

Cancel Infinity

I’m not terribly unhappy that Infinity is on its way out even though I bought both 2.0 and 3.0. After all, I can still play it, or at least, I think I will be able to. I can for now. That may not last when Disney cuts off Infinity’s network servers. Though, Infinity had it’s fair share of problems. Let’s start a list, shall we?

  • It’s boring. The characters look good on screen and even better on the figures, but playing around in the Toy Box is just B O R I N G. Seriously, creating that toy box world is about as much fun as watching paint dry.
  • The playsets are very short. So, you go out and spend $35 for a playset and two figures. Yet, the world takes maybe 1 day to get through? I mean, we’re talking about a fair amount of money for such short play value. Even Skylanders play value is longer than this. Worse, again, much of the playset is boring. Not only is it expensive, it just doesn’t hold much play value.
  • The figures are expensive. At $12-15 per figure, that’s a lot of money. Granted, the LightFX Star Wars figures are quite cool. But, still expensive. And, now that the series is dead, there will be no more Star Wars LightFX figures made. Kylo Ren was the last one.
  • The starter kit is way expensive and requires you to buy a new portal each and every iteration. So stupid and wasteful.

It is now certain that Disney will cut off the Infinity servers in this shut down process. Parts of Infinity will shut off in September 2016 and the rest will shutdown between September 2016 and March 2017. March 3rd, 2017 is the date which all servers will be permanently shut down for all Infinity game versions (console, PC, tablets, etc).

It is as yet uncertain exactly what will fail when the servers shutdown completely. It has been stated that games which have a world game piece that you drop onto the base may continue function. However, online play, such as the toy box, creation sharing, multiplayer, multiplayer matches and leader boards will no longer function. If a game requires the availability of any online access to validate any parts of the game’s content or provide extra content, it’s likely that game will no longer work at all. You should be prepared to take it away from your child before March to avoid disappointment.

Gameplay

What I will say about the gameplay is that the separate game worlds using the crystal bases are the best part of the game. They offer a short, if not reasonably well defined gameplay. For example, the Rise Against the Empire playset offers a taste of the original 3 Star Wars movie including A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi game segments. The gameplay is reasonably fun, if not overall short, repetitive and somewhat boring once you’ve completed the story.

Swapping characters only lets you increase your play time if your current character is defeated and needs to “rest”. Though, this whole Toys To Life type gaming concept has fundamental problems. The toys themselves are space hogs and require bulky and cumbersome cases to store. Instead, Nintendo has the right idea with using cards instead of plastic figures. Cards are much more portable and overall a better choice for ease of use, storage and functionality. On the other hand, the carded figures will probably fetch more money from collectors in the future. Though, there’s no promises on that.

The thing is, other than the graphics improving between 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0 versions, that’s about it. The  gameplay itself is essentially the same. I was hoping that Avalanche software would have substantially improved the gameplay on each iteration. Instead, the only thing they did was cause you to buy a new starter pack and make the new figures not backwards compatible with the previous games. I would personally say that Disney 2.0 was the best version of Infinity. The Marvel character playsets were decently fun and had some replay value. Unfortunately, the Star Wars playsets don’t really have that replayability. The 3.0 figure lineup has been drastically cut short. So, we may never know what was in store for us.

Overall

I can handle playing Infinity in small doses. The only playsets that I somewhat enjoyed were the Spiderman playset from 2.0 and the Star Wars playsets from 3.0. Everything else is just pointless. Even still, of the playsets that I actually liked, they were very short and more than occasionally boring. The combat is okay, but the stories are just not much fun overall. In fact, I found some of the Marvel playsets frustrating due to the nature of what they want you to do.

Opening up the capsules to release the colored sparks was just not much fun at all. Yes, they did add health or power or whatever, but chasing down the sparks was just annoying. Sometimes, many of them fall out of reach ending in frustration. Why not just pick up all of the sparks as soon as the capsule is opened? Why am I required to go chase them down if they fall off of the edge of a building?

Why am I writing this review now?

I only write this review in remembrance of what was Disney Infinity. Disney should have never entered into the video game business if they had no plans of staying in it. You just don’t jump into producing something like Infinity unless you plan at least a 5 year commitment. Unfortunately, Disney Infinity was only available for ~3 years (1.0, 2.0 and 3.0). This is far too short to know if this series might have had some staying power.

Additionally, I’m writing this review now to state that if you are on the fence and want to play one of the playsets in this game, buy it now! It’s actually too late to buy into Disney Infinity. If you can find the starter pack for less than $5, maybe. Otherwise, you should go pick up another game. If you already have it, play it while Disney’s servers are still online, let you log in and it still offers whatever is left of its online features. Once Disney closes down its Infinity game servers in 2017, the game may literally be over. On the other hand, if you’re thinking of giving this video game to your child for the holidays, know that it has no future and you are investing in a dead video game product with no life left. In other words, don’t give this as a gift to your child. Choose a different gift, such as Skylanders or Amiibo.

If your child already has this game, you might want to prepare them for the time when they attempt to start up the game and Disney has killed their game servers. This may prevent playing the game entirely, or at least the multiplayer parts of it. This may ultimately be disappointing for your child. You might want to find a way to pry Infinity away from your child now to avoid this disappointment in the future. If your child has this game and they are no longer playing it, be thankful and send it to Goodwill quickly.

If you’re thinking of buying a Toys-To-Life game system, the Skylanders franchise is still very much alive and kicking and will be releasing a new set this year (Skylanders Imaginators). It might be worth trying to get your child to switch. I know that that series doesn’t offer playing as Ironman, Spiderman, Han Solo, Luke Skywalker or any other Disney owned character, but it will be of little concession when Disney cuts off their interactive servers for Disney Infinity on March 3rd, 2017.

Have you recently purchased?

If you’ve recently purchased the Disney Infinity 3.0 starter pack and you are still within the return period, I’d strongly suggest returning the set to your retailer. You can only expect about 6 months more of real play value from this system. For a Toys-To-Life purchase, I’d recommend buying into the newest Skylanders Imaginators set which will offer a 8-10 months or more of play value. The only reason to keep the Disney Infinity set is if you really must play the Star Wars playsets. They are reasonably fun, but don’t sit on playing it. Play them (or give them to your child) now while Disney’s servers are still online. If you wait even just a few months to play the system, you might find that Disney has limited what the game can do.

As tempting as it is, I’d also highly suggest not purchasing this even if it goes on sale for 50% off or more. I’d also strongly suggest not purchasing this set to hold as a holiday gift. This video game is tied to Disney’s network servers remaining online for network play (and possibly for any play). If you buy it now to give in December, you may find your child disappointed on the big day. Be wary if you decide to buy into the Disney Infinity 3.0 Starter Pack as there’s not much time left for usable play.

As long as you understand that the clock is ticking on the longevity of Disney Infinity and you can find the game and figures for 90% off, that would be the only reason to buy into this set. Otherwise, steer clear and choose Skylanders.

Amiibo

So as not to be remiss in discussing the other Toys-To-Life system out there besides Skylanders, let’s talk about Nintendo’s Amiibo system. Nintendo’s Amiibos only work with Nintendo systems. This means you’ll need to invest in a Wii U or Nintendo 3DS/2DS game system to use an Amiibo or Amiibo cards. If you already have a Wii U or 3DS, then by all means I’d suggest buying into Nintendo’s Amiibo system over Disney Infinity, to be sure. On the other hand, Nintendo has had a lot of troubles handling its Amiibos. Either Nintendo floods the market with a ton of figures that no one wants (I’m looking at you Animal Crossing) or they make so few you can’t even find them (looking at you King Dedede, Palutena, Samus and Gold Mario). Nintendo’s ability to consistently deliver its Amiibos in sufficient quantities is a problem. Unless you enjoy continually seeing your child’s disappointment, in spending a lot of money for a toy (i.e., $50 or $100 for a single character) or running all over town looking for that elusive Amiibo, the Amiibo system may not be what you want as a parent.

Worse, your child can’t keep the Amiibo toys in the package and still play them, unlike Skylanders which can be played in the package. Nintendo has intentionally placed an RFID blocking card in front of the RFID chip. This requires that you rip the toys out of the packages to play (or at least rip open parts of the package to get this blocking card out). Ripping them out automatically reduces the collectibility. So, expect to buy them in twos. One to rip open, the other to store as a collectible.

Amiibo characters are also firmly limited to Nintendo franchises (Mario, Luigi, Kirby, Smash Bros., Animal Crossing, Metroid, Zelda, Yoshi, Fire Emblem, etc). If your child is not into Nintendo characters and franchises, buying into the Amiibo system might not be wise. With Nintendo’s Toys-To-Life system, don’t expect to see any Marvel, DC or Star Wars characters (or any other non-Nintendo characters).

Suffice it to say that the Amiibo system is cumbersome to use and has massively limited play value. The toys are mere afterthoughts to each game rather than being truly integrated like Infinity or Skylanders. For this reason, I don’t recommend the Amiibo system over Skylanders unless your child has a strong affinity for Nintendo’s characters and games and you already have a Wii U or DS.

Toys-to-Life longevity

While the Toys-to-Life system was a novel concept when Skylanders first hit the shelves, it has now become a dwindling fad. I believe that’s part of the reason Disney is now chucking its Infinity franchise in the bin. For this reason, I might suggest avoiding any Toys-to-Life products as gifts for your child. Yes, they are reasonably fun to play, but it is also costly to invest in each and every one of the figures, the playsets and the add-ons. As a parent, it’s an expensive never-ending trap

Worse, I believe that this game system fad is now ending. Infinity is the first to fall, but I believe that Skylanders may be next. Skylander’s Trap Team was arguably Activision’s best effort to date. Skylanders Superchargers was just not nearly as much fun, primarily because the racing was horrible. Nintendo’s Amiibo lineup may continue onward for a bit longer, but I believe that Nintendo is already feeling the pinch considering they are now starting to release duplicated figures in different poses and outfits. You can only do that for so long. In fact, at a time when the most Amiibos should be released all year, we’ve not had any Amiibos released so far. We’re only 2.75 months from the end of the year now and we’ve still not seen any new Amiibos since mid summer. You can’t sell what you don’t have on the shelves.

Skylanders Imaginators is the next in the Skylanders series, but I believe that this latest set will see lackluster sales, perhaps to the point of Activision rethinking toys-to-life systems as a whole. All things must end and I believe that the toys-to-life systems are now at the end of their run. If we have both Skylanders and Amiibos franchises still active by 2018, I’d be surprised. Though, I do expect to see both Amiibo and Skylanders live through to the end of 2017 (with far fewer figures released).

Once bitten, twice shy.

If Disney decides to jump back into the video game business again soon, I’ll definitely be one of the last people to buy into it. I just don’t trust Disney with video game franchises from a fun perspective or for its longevity. So long Disney Infinity, don’t let the castle door hit you on the way out.

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Skylanders Trap Team: Review + Kaos Trap?

Posted in botch, video game, video gaming by commorancy on January 9, 2015

trap-team-compatibility-logo[Update 3: 4/6/2015]: Gamestop.com has several Kaos Trap bundles now available online for purchase. Not only do they now have the same 3 trap bundle as on Amazon for $15.99 (only available in stores), Gamestop.com also carries 3 additional Kaos Trap bundles (online only) that Gamestop has created (Kaos-Water-Magic, Kaos-Water-Earth & Kaos-Water-Life) containing 3 trap singles as a bundle for $17.97. If you’re looking for the individual trap (not as part of a 3 pack), this is the best and least costly way to get it. Now I know why Gamestop has been hoarding Kaos Traps from their case packs at their warehouse instead of sending them to the stores. They have been stockpiling these Kaos Traps to create these 3 trap single bundles for online sales. Retailers should not be allowed to break case packs open and hold out stock for months for the purpose of creating bundles. All I can say is, if you want this trap, hurry.

[Update 2: 4/1/2015]: It seems Amazon’s stock of the 3 trap bundle has been temporarily depleted at $14.99. Try back in a day or two as Amazon refreshes their stock every day. However, don’t limit yourself to Amazon. All retailers are likely to get this 3 pack. Try looking at (or calling) Best Buy, Walmart, Gamestop, Target, Kmart, Toys R Us or any other retailer near you that carries Skylander’s toys.

[Update 1: 4/1/2015]: If you’re looking for the Kaos Trap, it is now included in a 3 trap bundle (Air, Kaos, Earth) for KaosTrapBundle$14.99 available now at Amazon. Be sure to choose the Amazon version marked at $14.99. Amazon has a tendency to put items in stock as the first item in the listing (even if it’s a higher price). Choose the Amazon item at $14.99 even if it says it ships later. If you don’t see a $14.99 listing, it means Amazon’s stock has been depleted and their listing has been temporarily removed. Try back again another day.

Skylanders Trap Team

While I have to give kudos yet again to Activision for producing a top notch installment to the Skylanders franchise, there is one huge peeve I have with this series. What is Skylanders you ask? Let’s explore.

Skylanders Video Game and RFID

This game is relatively simple video game with a brilliant gimmick that parents all over the country are cursing their wallet. This is exactly how it was designed by Activision. So, what is it?

It’s simple, it’s basically a cartoon turned into an action fighting game with characters that you must purchase separately. Each figure you purchase has its own strengths and weaknesses in battle. These are determined by the character’s abilities. Once you buy a character toy, you place it on the Traptanium Portal (included with the Starter Pack) and an RFID reader pulls character information stored on the toy into the game. So, the more you play with that character, the higher it levels up and the stronger it becomes.

In fact, it’s a brilliant use of RFID technology and video games. I’d love to see more RPG games use this idea. For example, a series like the Elder Scrolls or Mass Effect or even Star Wars RPGs could benefit from this. Instead of relying on finding items in the world, you would buy them at the store and level them up on your character. The item could then be added to any character you own. There are so many uses for this idea in gaming, it’s sad that it’s not being used more. I think it’s absolutely brilliant for gaming.

Toys and Scarcity

My peeve.. Activision has taken the approach of releasing toys in waves and at random times throughout the year. This does a couple of things. First, withholding some toys means that you can’t play parts of the game until the toy is released. Second, some of the toys are intentionally hard to find so that parts of the game cannot even be completed until you manage to find it or you are willing to pay the highly inflated price on eBay or Amazon.

For Skylanders, this approach is extremely frustrating and introduces kids into the fray of toy collecting early. But, unfortunately, kids don’t have the money to locate or pay for these toys. The parents are firmly on the hook for locating and placating their child’s video game play.

To this I say, “Shame on you Activision”. This series appeals to children at an age that have little concept of collectible toys or scarcity of toys on the shelves. What am I talking about here?

Skylanders Traps

The latest Skylanders game is titled Trap Team. The concept behind this game is that not only can you buy and use toy characters, you can now trap the villains you defeat and they become good characters you can use to defeat new villains and trap them. But, this is not just about any old trap. I’m specifically talking about the Kaos trap. Note that there are 40 or so villains in the game. This also means you need to invest in about 40 traps to to entrap the villains. What is a trap? It’s a small toy that looks like a crystal. It is initially empty, but once you trap a villain, it becomes associated with that specific toy trap. So, everytime you place that trap into the portal, it recalls that same villain. If you take that crystal and put it in someone else’s game, it will also pull in that villain into their game.

In addition to buying small traps, there are different elements (earth, air, water, fire, life, tech, magic, undead, light and dark). Each of these element types requires a special trap that is color coded. So, unless you have one of these specific types of traps, you cannot trap a villain of that type. More specifically, the main villain in the game is Kaos. He has his own personal trap type called, creatively enough, the Kaos trap. This trap can only ever hold Kaos. Once you trap Kaos, you can use him as a character in battle.

KaosTrapUnfortunately, Activision has dropped the ball heavily with this game in this area. While it’s easy to find Fire, Water, Earth, Air, Tech, Life, Magic and Undead traps pretty much everywhere, the Kaos trap is extremely hard to find. In fact, in a case of 20-30 traps, there may be only 3 Kaos traps. This means the store gets a boatload of these easy-to-find elements and Kaos trap immediately sells out. Because Kaos can only be trapped in a Kaos trap, you have to find that trap or your child cannot play as Kaos. Kaos is the absolutely strongest villain in the game, so having him to use in battle is extremely useful.

Note, a lot of people believe this trap has never been released. It has. It was released when all of the traps first released. However, there are so few in the retailer case packs that you’re unlikely to ever see it in the store. What I recommend at this point is to buy the Dark Edition Starter Pack which contains an Ultimate Kaos trap. This will at least let your child play as Kaos. The Dark Edition is a whole lot more expensive than buying the Kaos trap at retail price, but this trap is almost impossible to find in any retailer. At this point, to buy the Kaos trap alone aftermarket might cost you $50. Though, that’s cheaper than buying the Dark Edition Starter pack. But, if you’re buying the game brand new, I highly recommend buying the Dark Edition set. If you’ve got an existing a game you’ve already purchased, then buying an aftermarket trap may be the only answer. I’d also suggest filing a complaint with Activision on the scarcity of this trap.

Light and Dark Traps

The reason I excluded the Light and Dark traps from the above is that both of these sets were released immediately prior to Christmas. These traps are a bit hard to find because they are brand new. But, they can be obtained in the light and dark adventure packs that also contain the new level, the trap and a trap master. The light (Sunscraper Spire) and dark (Midnight Museum) adventure sets can be found periodically on Amazon. Note, make sure that it says you’re buying these from Amazon and not a third party seller to get the lowest price. When Amazon (or any store) has these in stock, they should cost around $29.

Activision’s Game Clock

There is absolutely no reason the Kaos trap is so hard to find. Activision could ship retailers cases entirely of the Kaos trap and completely eliminate the scarcity of this trap. In fact, there is no reason this trap is so scarce. This is an artificial scarcity that Activision has introduced into the series, but this type of scarcity doesn’t belong with this game. This is a completely mistaken and asinine strategy. If this were a series aimed at adults (and specifically adult collectors), such as The Elder Scrolls series, this situation is perfectly acceptable. Unfortunately, this game is targeted completely at children. This scarcity of the Kaos trap is likely backfiring on Activision hard and ruining their PR, but they seem oblivious to this issue.

Parents have no interest in playing this game (other than getting things for their children) and will ultimately take the game away from little Timmy when it becomes too costly and problematic. That means, no more money to Activision from that family. More and more families are pulling the plug on this game in their household because of this exact scarcity issue. To avoid disappointments in children, you take away the thing that’s causing it. Worse, children don’t have the longest attention span in the first place. So, when a child can’t do what they want to do in the game, they’re going to give up on it sooner rather than later and never come back to it. Meaning, if they can’t get the Kaos trap to play as Kaos when they need it, they’ll give up on the game and forget all about it by the time the Kaos traps do arrive.

Shelf Life of Games

Games typically have a 6 month or so shelf life at the longest before a newer more compelling game is released. Seeing as this game released October 4th, 2014, the clock is firmly ticking on Activision to make these toys more readily available. If Activision cannot solve this Kaos scarcity problem, assuming the parents haven’t already pulled the plug on the game, the kids will lose interest by the time the next game arrives.

Kaos Arena Game Play

What’s worse is not only the shelf life, but the replay-ability. This game is short. It doesn’t take long to get through the entire story piece. Getting through the arena levels takes only slightly longer. However, if you want to open every door and unlock every treasure, that takes substantially longer. Unfortunately, you can’t easily do this because Activision was, until recently, withholding critical toys to make this a reality. But, in gaming, not everyone is a completionist, let alone assuming this of children. While some children may want to finish the entire game and get every medal, not everyone will.

In reality, once you get through the story entirely, you’re pretty much done with the game. You don’t learn anything new or gain any new story by completing everything. So, it’s a stretch to ask kids to wait months to get the final content they need to complete the game. In fact, Activision is stretching it if they think they can stretch this game’s lifespan longer with this slow drip toy strategy. Activision will be lucky if many kids are still playing this game come March. Timing is everything with this game and Activision not delivering critical pieces of the game within a few weeks of the release of this game is really not a great strategy.

Costly

SkylandersDarkEditionOne aspect of this game that I haven’t yet touched on is cost. To really play this game properly, in addition to buying the Starter Pack Edition game kit (around $50) or the Dark Edition Kit (around $125), you need a Trap Master of every element and purchase traps of every element. Like Skylanders Swap Force required purchasing characters that you could swap their top and bottoms, you also needed every element and every power type to complete Swap Force. The same goes with Trap Team. Not only do you need a Trap Master of every element (of which Magic, Light and Dark are the hardest to find), you also need to buy a trap to contain each villain to be a completionist. That entails purchasing 40 traps in addition to 10 trap masters. Traps cost around $6 a piece and trap masters anywhere from $12.99 to $14.99, though Toys R Us puts them on sale at buy one get one 40% off regularly. So, you can reduce the cost by taking advantage of this deal. You can also save a little money if you buy the bulk trap packs that contain 3 or 8 traps bundled together.

And don’t think you can get away just with purchasing the toys. No. You’ll need to organize and store them. So, you’ll also need to purchase a chest for the traps and a case to hold the figures to keep them organized and stored.

EliteChopChopIt doesn’t stop there, there are also standard toy characters that you can buy to battle with and more powerful characters called Eon’s Elites (which are primarily collectibles and only available at Gamestop and EB Games in North America, Australia and New Zealand, and select retailers in Europe). They also appear to be limited. Be prepared to call Gamestop or EB Games looking for these Elites if you need to find them. There are adventure packs to add new levels to the game which usually retail around $30-35.

This is a fairly substantial investment for a game. Most games cost $60 with at most $10-20 worth of DLC. But, Skylanders can run you into the hundreds of dollars with all of the toys and add-ons. I’d recommend that, unless absolutely necessary, the toys should remain in their packaging. This will retain the value of the toy. So, when the game is done, you can put it on eBay and sell it off at a reasonably good value. People are willing to buy figures still in the package, so it’s always wise to do this when possible. Keep in mind that this is impossible to do for the traps. The traps have to be extracted from their packages to be used. But, the Trap Masters and most of the characters will play just fine if left in the package. The only exception to this is the Light and Dark adventure packs that include traps that must be extracted to be used. So, you have to rip open these packages for the traps.

Overall

The game is reasonably fun and plays like watching a cartoon. The voice acting is superb and the story is well written. But, it does require a costly investment in toys and extras. Unless you have the means and you are willing and able to run around or call stores constantly to find that ever-elusive toy or trap, you might not want to consider this game for your child. It could end up being a huge source of frustration. Else, you’re likely to find yourself spending a lot of time running around looking for the elusive trap, toy or character. And, these waves of new toys don’t stop. There are many variations of trap shapes (well more than there are villains). Toys will continue to show up in stores until Activision releases the next version of Skylanders. However, you will be able to use these toys in the next Skylander’s game, but Activision will require a new gimmick to force repurchase of an entirely new set of toys. Ultimately, the game itself is fun, but not overly replayable. However, for some children Trap Team may offer some level of replay.

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Bioshock Infinite: Or, why circular time paradoxes suck!

Posted in movies, storytelling, video game, video game design by commorancy on June 3, 2013

Note: If you haven’t yet played Bioshock Infinite yet, this article contains spoilers.  You should stop reading now! You have been warned.

Many people are awed and dumbfounded by the story within Bioshock Infinite. For some odd reason, people think this is a good thing and somehow even like and see it as some sort of thought provoking experience. Well, perhaps it is in some small way thought provoking, but not thought provoking in the right way. Let’s explore why Bioshock Infinite’s type of thought provoking experience is not a good thing and not something to be wanted or liked in storytelling.

Breaking the Rules

There’s something to be said for people who break the rules. Sometimes breaking the rules can lead to good consequences. Most times, it ends up in failure. Story and narrative creation rules have been in existence since the earliest fiction book was written. Yet, these rules have minimally changed throughout the years to keep stories satisfying and fresh. The rules for well written storytelling are already firmly established. Granted, the storyteller can take liberties if the diversion leads you back to something profound within the story. Basically, the idea behind storytelling is to keep the pace and momentum going and to flesh out characters who the reader can feel good about. Plot devices are used to keep the story on track, to know where that story is heading and what the end goal is for the characters. With the ultimate goal being to produce characters whose situations seem real and profound.  The characters are the crux that ground the story even if the rest of the world is fanciful.  Without this grounding, the story falls apart. With that said, every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. All three of these should be clearly defined so that what transpires along the way leads to a satisfying conclusion of the characters lives where the readers have invested their time.

Video Game Storytelling

With video games, the way to tell a story hasn’t substantially changed and not every video game company ‘gets’ it. Every entertainment experience today should become a cohesive character driven story to be successful. Within video games, there are two pieces to the story puzzle. The gameplay and the storytelling. Both are symbiotic relationships. One feeds off of the other. Neither should really become dominant in this mix. If the game falls too much into a storytelling role, it loses the interactivity needed to be a great video game. If the gameplay is all there is and the story only happens at the beginning and end, the story becomes an afterthought. Both have to work together to create the whole and to keep the player engaged in the game and the story. However, should one become more dominant than the other, the gameplay should win. It is a game after all.

Time Travel and Storytelling

Unfortunately, too many novice storytellers decide to use the extremely overused, trite and cliche device known as time travel and time anomalies to create and tell their story. Worse, without clearly reasoned ideas, time travel can easily make a story become an  Ex Deus Machina blunder. As it’s far too easily done wrong, time travel should be avoided in most stories as it really has no place in any quality storytelling experience. And, it’s usually not needed. For example, J.J. Abrams uses this device within the newest Star Trek film reboot. He, unfortunately, uses it to create an alternative universe where the original Star Trek crew don’t actually live. Instead, he creates a rebooted universe of his own choosing and design. His storytelling approach is to toss out the baby with the bathwater and start over on his own terms. Not only does this completely dismiss and insult Gene Roddenberry’s vision of Star Trek, it completely smacks of pretentiousness. J.J. Abrams apparently thinks he’s better than Gene Roddenberry and can somehow improve upon what Roddenberry has created. In fact, there is no need for this in the Star Trek universe. The original Star Trek universe works perfectly fine as it is for setting J.J. Abrams’ story.

In J.J. Abrams’ Trek, the only true Star Trek original crew was the aging Spock who somehow accidentally stumbled through a time hole into J.J. Abrams’ fabricated new time paradoxical Star Trek universe. After you realize this, you’ll understand just how horrible the new Star Trek film really is. The events that took place in J.J. Abrams’ Trek movie don’t exist in the universe that Gene Roddenberry created. This also means that you’ve wasted 2 hours of your life watching a contrived useless film.

Bioshock Infinite is a video game who’s designers decided to use time travel and alternative dimensions (string theory) to explain the story. The only thing the writers successfully accomplish is to produce an incomprehensible mess of a story with characters we ultimately don’t really care about. Some players saw the story as thought provoking. The only thing that Infinite accomplishes, if you begin to think on the story, is unravel its own story and you’re left with questions like, “Did it really even happen?” or “Is he alive or dead?” or “Is the story really over?”. Questions that, if you really want satisfying closure to a story as a writer, you don’t want people asking. These are not the kinds of questions that should be left over at the end of your story. These are the kinds of questions that lead people to critique the story as being trite, cliche and poorly written. You want people to value the story and cherish and like the story. You want them liking and asking questions about the characters, what happened to them after, where the story might go from here. You don’t want to leave your story open to ‘Infinite’ possibilities where the story leads effectively nowhere and there are so many of the same characters that you can’t even wrap your head around it. In storytelling, infinite choice is the same as no choice. Meaning, if there is no way to tell what happened, that’s the same as saying that it didn’t happen. Which then means that playing the game is pointless.

Time Travel and Time Paradoxes

Time travel is a concept that we do not know if it’s possible. It’s all theory and conjecture at this point. It could become a reality in the future, but we’re not there yet. Telling fanciful stories about time travel and multiple universes may seem like something good, but most times isn’t. The single biggest problem with using time travel and string theory in storytelling is the circular time paradox. That is, a situation that would lead the viewer to logically conclude just how the story came to exist if changing a small piece caused the creation (or unraveling) of the situation in the first place. As a concrete example, in the film Terminator 2, Skynet effectively creates itself. That is, a Skynet robot from the future is sent back in time to kill the then kid, John Connor. Yet, it fails and is destroyed. Its robotic brain technology chip is recovered by Cyberdyne Systems. Cyberdyne Systems employees then reverse engineers the chip which, through technology breakthroughs as a result of that chip then causes the creation of the technology that leads to the birth of those exact robots and the Skynet computer. Effectively, the technology creates itself. Because of this circular time paradox, this makes stories like Terminator 2 unwieldy, unsatisfying and poorly written. Technology simply cannot create itself and stories should never be written that even hint at that. Humans should always have a hand in that creation of something or the logic of the whole story falls apart.

Likewise, Bioshock Infinite creates a time paradox where the death of Booker unravels the game’s entire reason to exist. Why would you, as a writer, intentionally negate the reason for your story’s existence? Basically, you’ve just told your readers, this story sucked and it didn’t really happen. Or in the case of a video game, the designers are saying, “Yes, we understand you’ve invested hours and hours playing this video game, but really, the story and game just didn’t happen.”

Bioshock Infinite

Oh, this game seems like it tries to keep itself on track in the beginning, but fails because its writers and the story simply get more and more lost with every new time hole (tear) that Elizabeth creates. The writers eventually can’t keep up with the time paradoxes and begin ignoring them entirely in hopes that the player will too. Unfortunately, I can’t overlook this issue. It’s one of my pet peeves within stories. While I don’t plan on keeping score of exactly how many time paradoxes take place over the course of the game, the one that matters is at the very end of the game.

If Booker and Comstock are one and the same person, and Booker kills himself as a child, Columbia can’t come to exist and neither can Elizabeth. Of course, what happens is that multiple Elizabeths drown Booker in a mock baptism which also negates the entire Comstock Columbia story. Which means, Booker would never come to visit Columbia and Elizabeth would never have been stuck in the tower. Who’s to say Anna/Elizabeth would have even been born? Yet, self-preservation and survival is the strongest human instinct that humans have. Why would Elizabeth knowingly do away with her own existence by killing her own father or even allow that to happen? That’s just not logical or rational from a character self-preservation perspective. Worse, because Irrational’s designers postulate the possibility of ‘Infinite’ realities with infinite Elizabeths, Comstocks, and Bookers, there never could be complete destruction of any one of those characters or of every infinite possible version of that story. Worse, thinking thorough the possibility of infinite stories, how do we even know that the story we played is even the one that matters in the Grand Scheme? Likely there is a universe where Booker doesn’t become Comstock and Elizabeth and Booker have a normal happy family relationship and live happily ever after along with her mother.

Worse, what does any of the Infinite story have to do with Rapture? Yes, we got to see Rapture through one of Elizabeth’s doors, but the only relationship between Bioshock Infinite and the other Bioshock games is strictly in that short visit to Rapture. Nothing in this multiverse story has anything whatever to do with explaining Rapture (other than being just another alternative reality). It doesn’t explain splicers, big daddys, little sisters, big sisters or anything else to do with what transpires on Rapture. In other words, the writers of Infinite fail in two ways:

  • They fail to give us a story from Infinite that ultimately makes any sense in the end
  • They fail to explain the creation of Rapture or of those people who end up on Rapture

They even fail at explaining how Columbia comes to exist. If the multiple Elizabeths are successful at drowning Booker, Comstock can’t come to exist and neither can Columbia. That means that the entire story in Bioshock Infinite doesn’t even happen. Which, unfortunately, leads to a circular time paradox. Such circular time paradoxes should always be avoided when writing time travel and string theory stories. Why? Because they leave the viewer with the question, “What was the point in that?” and provide a less than satisfying ending. It’s also not the question you want your viewers left asking after it’s all over. You want them to be thinking about the story and how they like the characters along the way. If the characters are all completely toss-worthy, as in Infinite, then it’s all pointless. You don’t want the viewer fixated on how the story even came to exist because that then turns the viewers to realize just how bad the story is and how worthless the characters are. Further, as an author, why would you ever intentionally write your entire story and characters out of existence via a time paradox? Is your story really that unimportant to you and your readers?

It’s the same reason you never write a story that ends up with the main character waking up from a dream at the end. Stories that end up as one big dream sequence are completely unsatisfying.  Viewers think, “Why did I waste my time watching that?” It’s definitely the wrong thing to pull from a story. Time travel stories with circular time paradoxes are just as equally unsatisfying for the same reason as waking up from a dream sequence. In fact, these two plot devices are born from the same mold and should never be used unless there is a very good reason to break that rule. This is especially true if primary storyline’s time paradox negates the whole reason to even tell the story because the characters never existed. So far, I’ve not read one recent book, seen a recent movie or played a recent game that had a story that could successfully navigate time travel or multiverses as plot device.

The closest any recent filmmakers have ever come to making time travel actually work without producing circular time paradoxes is Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future series and Alfonso Cuaron’s adaptation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban with its Time Turner sequences. Both stories are carefully crafted to avoid circular time paradoxes. In Prisoner of Azkaban, the Time Turner sequence isn’t used as the main story driving device. Instead, it is used in a noble way to save Buckbeak from death, which allowes the film to have a very satisfying closure. Zemeckis’ Back to the Future films do use time travel as the main plot device. However, these films’ stories are also very carefully crafted to avoid time paradoxes and leave each film with very satisfying conclusions. So, you ultimately care about the characters and ignore the silly time travel plot device. I would also include that the original H.G. Wells’ Time Machine movie is probably the most successful at navigating time travel as a device within a story without creating a circular time paradox while still providing engaging likeable characters along the way.

Overused plot devices

Time travel use as a plot device, while extremely popular, is mostly carelessly used. It has been used in such popular franchises as Lost, Stargate, Star Trek (series and movies), Terminator and is now being used in video games like Bioshock Infinite. Writers need to be extremely judicious with their use of this plot device. Time travel should only be used in a way that advances the story forward, but never in a way that becomes the story itself (as in Bioshock Infinite). Unfortunately, Irrational’s writers just don’t understand how to properly use this plot device within the story context and they use it incorrectly. It should never be used in the way it is used in Infinite. Instead, Columbia could have been shown to exist for other reasons than because of infinite realities.

At the end of Bioshock Infinite, it’s quite clear that the time travel piece is poorly conceived. It ends up making the main character appear as if he is having a psychotic episode rather than actively part of multiple dimensions and realities. I full well expected to see Booker wake up in a mental facility (on Rapture) with nurse Elizabeth administering sedatives to him. At least that storyline would have dismissed the time paradoxes as unreal events and showed us that Booker is just a mental patient among many. This is what is needed to ground the story and tie in the Bioshock Rapture story experience to the Bioshock Infinite story experience full-circle. Yes, that ending would have invalidated Columbia as a non-event, but the writers already did a good job of that in Infinite. Yes, I realize I’m advocating explaining off Infinite as a dream sequence (which is generally to be avoided). Because the Infinite writers already negated their own story, that mental hospital ending would at least start to explain how Rapture came to exist in the state it is in when we played the original Bioshock which is still a far better ending than negating your entire story. At this point, the Infinite story is just a jumbled disarray of ideas that didn’t congeal and that basically made the entire Columbia story a complete time wasting experience.  We don’t care about Comstock and now we don’t know what to think about Booker. Anna/Elizabeth ends up simply being a facilitating plot device, but we really don’t feel for her plight at all during or after the story.  At the end, she ends up a pawn (as is everyone else including Booker and Comstock). In fact, because of the time paradox story negation, we really don’t care about any of the characters.

As an FYI to future writers, ending your story with infinite universe possibilities and infinite versions of your story’s main characters is the worst possible ending for a story if you want your characters to be remembered. Because you as an author should value your story’s existence above all else, negating your characters and story with a time paradox simply sucks. If you don’t value your story, why should we?

Game Review: Defiance MMO on Xbox

Posted in video game, video game design, video gaming by commorancy on April 29, 2013

Defiance While I really want to like Trion’s Defiance on the Xbox 360 and in some ways I do like it, it also has some highly annoying design ideas, features, levels and quirks. Before I begin, you need to know that Defiance is an online multiplayer game only and requires a subscription to Xbox Live Gold. Don’t buy this game unless you plan to buy or already have a subscription to Xbox Live (which, of course, requires broadband Internet access). Additionally, this game is completely dependent on Trion’s servers being continually available. If Trion’s servers go down (and they do regularly), you cannot play the game AT ALL. Anyway, grab a cup of coffee and let’s get going.

Disclaimer: Be careful buying used copies of Defiance. If Trion folds or they shut down the Defiance servers, the game disk will become a coaster. The game disk has no standalone content. The Defiance game relies 100% on Trion to operate the servers and stay in business. The business of gaming is fickle. If this game doesn’t last longer than a year in operation or the TV series is cancelled, don’t be surprised if you can’t play the game. If you are reading this review a year (or later) since it has been written, do some research before investing in a used copy of the game. 

What is an MMO?

MMO stands for massive mutiplayer online. Basically, it’s a multiplayer game. It isn’t really a single player campaign game. Basically, what Defiance is to 3D gaming, a MUSH is to text-based gaming. Basically, it’s a large map environment with a load of players from all over all playing the game together.

What’s good about Defiance?

Defiance is not your standard third-person 3D Campaign based shooter or even a standard 3D death match style multiplayer game. Defiance mixes both single player campaign with multiplayer coop seemlessly.  In fact, it’s really the first game I’ve played to do so. Granted, I have not played World of Warcraft, so this game may offer that level of play, also. Basically, you and your friends can join in and all defeat an enemy or boss together… at least, sometimes. Yes, there are missions where coop is not possible. It really is a pretty cool idea. The trouble is, the idea of it is pretty much where the coolness ends.  The way it’s designed could be way better.

What’s bad about Defiance?

It’s highly repetitive.  

As you’re driving around, you see a whole bunch of different missions on the roads.  But, you’ll see the same drive-by road side missions time and time again. These drive-by missions are distinctly different from those that appear on your map as an exclamation point in a diamond. Once you’ve played several of those drive by missions, you don’t really want to do it again… and again.. and again. It’s not cool. Also, it’s the same enemies over and over. So, even though it’s a new mission, it’s the same enemies with all of the same tactics.  Tactics, I might add, which can be highly boring after defeating them several times. It’s okay when you’re doing it for the first time. But, after you’ve played the same enemies and tactics about 5 times or more, it gets old really fast.

Leveling up is very s l o w.

As you level up, you get more and bigger weapons and perks. So, at least you do get stronger weapons as time progresses. But, expect that progression to go very s l o w l y. Don’t expect to get the biggest weapons really quick unless you play the game non-stop. However, even getting to Level 650 doesn’t seem much different than being at level 200 or even level 0 in terms of health or shield. You character still becomes incapacitated just easily. So, effectively all you are really getting out of leveling up is somewhat stronger weapons, maybe.

Boss Levels have no checkpoints

Single player boss levels have no save points during battle. If your character becomes incapacitated, you start the entire boss over from scratch just outside of the room.  In other words, you could lose up to 30 minutes of play time whittling the boss’ health down only for one missile to incapacitate you and you have to completely redo the whole thing again and again and again. This is entirely frustrating and time wasting. Basically, you are forced to play the boss level on the game designer’s terms, not yours. If you decide that you want to use stealth and sniper tactics, you can’t. The only strategy given is the one forced upon you by the designers… which usually entails running away from the enemy in hopes you can strike them with enough to kill them before they incapacitate you. It’s all trial and error and timing. There’s no strategy involved.

No way to change weapon load out quickly

Due to the frustrating menu system, you cannot change your weapon load out while in the middle of any battle, let alone a boss battle. Otherwise, you will be incapacitated. If you don’t load out correctly before going in, expect your character to die early and often.

Scrip and other currency types

Scrip is one type money in this game.  There are vendors that sell cars, weapons, weapon mods, shields and lock boxes.  Unfortunately, there are other forms of currency in this game which include bits, resources, reputation and keys.

  • Scrip is obtained by completing any mission or selling goods at vendors
  • Bits are obtained by buying them with Microsoft points (i.e., real money).
  • Resources are obtained by completing missions or by breaking down objects into resources
  • Keys are obtained by completing arkfalls and other missions
    • Unfortunately, there is a severe limit on how many keys you can hold (my limit is 75)
  • Reputation is obtained by completing multiplayer co-op missions (requires 4 players to participate)

Some items for purchase require a mixture of the above currencies to obtain that item from a vendor. So, some specialized weapons may require 200 reputation plus some Scrip to get that item. Getting that many reputation points requires participating in many 4 player coop missions.

Main Missions

The main missions consist of a story that seems to be leading someplace, but I’ve not yet figured out exactly where. Sure, your character is being ‘groomed’ for something big, but who knows really what. At a point early in the game, you meet a character that looks very similar to a Borg (and sounds like one, actually) named Nim Shondu. Later on, you have to kill him. Believe me, this boss level is nearly impossible to beat unless you come into it with the correct weapons dealing a high amount of damage combined with overcharge.  Even then, expect to spend loads of time with this room. There’s no hiding place in the room, so you can’t get away from his sword and special attacks or his EGO moves. He moves so fast that you can’t block his attacks. So, the best you can do is try to stay away from his attacks just long enough to kill him. Worse, you have to kill him 3 times. Good luck with that unless you are equipped correctly. Worse, you won’t know his tactics until you enter the room.  And, by then it’s too late to go find the right weapon let alone equip it. Even worse than all of this, the game still charges you an extraction fee each time you die and can’t self-revive. Truly, a poorly designed level

So far, this story has been about rag tag missions that seem to just open up more missions and more side missions. I don’t really see where the story is going at this point.  So, let’s hope the writers have a cohesive story arc in mind.

Weapons and Shields, but no Armor

Unlike other military games which allow you to level up and find weapons, armor, shields and clothing modifiers, Defiance only offers shields and weapons, which isn’t really enough for this type of game.  Of the shields you can find, they are all weak. Basically, there are two types of shields you can find:

  1. A shield with a low threshold for damage (1000 points or less) and recovers fast (1-3 seconds)
  2. A shield with a high threshold for damage (1500 points or higher) and recovers very slowly (delay 7-9 seconds)

Some shields are augmented with other traits (like better protection from fire damage, your own weapon damage, biodamage, etc).  I’ve yet to find a shield that has offers a high threshold for damage and recovers quickly. There might be one in the game somewhere, but I’ve yet to see it or find it.  Even still, it only takes about two Dark Matter troops firing their weapons at you to completely wipe out your shield with about 5 shots and another 5 will wipe out your health and incapacitate you. Worse, you cannot augment shields with any mods at all, even though the game lets you mod weapons.

Arkfalls and Side Missions

There are basically three types of side missions. Random encounters, marked side missions and Arkfalls.

Random Encounters

Random encounters are basically roadside missions.  That is, you drive by and see something blocking the road.  It might be Raiders, 99ers, Dark Matter, Scrappers or Hellbugs.  That’s basically the list of enemies in the game.  So, it will be one of these enemies that pops out of a road side mission. In fact, it’s the only type of enemies that will pop out of any of the missions including Arkfalls.

Side Missions

These mission types are marked on your map with an exclamation point in a diamond shape. These give small amounts of scrip (money) and small amounts of experience points.  They usually ask you to locate and obtain something and sometimes drop it off.  It might ask you to plant explosives.  It might ask you to clear out a Hellbug nest or kill all of the Raiders in a camp.

Arkfalls

Other than multiplayer coop maps, these are the truly massively multiplayer exeperiences in this game. When an ‘ark’ falls and hits the ground, ark hunters swoop in and scour it for parts to be sold.  In the game, when an ark falls, it’s just a mechanism to create a huge Hellbug or Scrapper to kill.  Each Arkfall starts off small (destroying crystals in two or three waves) or killing the enemies in an area.  As the smaller arkfall crystals are destroyed, this leads up to the big boss arkfall. You might have to do two or three small arkfalls before the big boss appears. Once the boss appears, all of the online players congregate and use whatever weapons they have to whittle the health down of the boss until it’s destroyed.  At the end of the arkfall, a panel appears showing who did the most damage in an ordered list.

These usually give about 6500XP experience. So, if you want to gain experience and scrip fast, join arkfalls regularly. Also, do the main missions. These gain you a lot of scrip.

Incapacitation

This is one of the sore spots in this game and is poorly designed.  I understand what they were trying to achieve with this part of the game, but it just doesn’t really work. So, you’ve lost all your shield and your health is now drained.  Once this happens, you fall to the ground and become incapacitated. Sometimes you get two options (self-revive or extraction).  Self-revive is as it states, you revive in place and pick up right where you left off.  Extraction means you start over at the extraction point. Self-revive only becomes available after 5 minutes or so of playtime after the last self-revive was used.  So, if you fall quickly after a self-revive, you have to pay scrip to get extracted.

When you’re in the world, extraction is generally cool (other than you lose a percentage of your ‘Scrip’ for being extracted).. except when your closest extraction point happens to be halfway across the map.  I’ll discuss extraction points next. However, when you’re at the boss level in a dungeon, it’s not fine. In fact, it’s damn right annoying and frustrating.  Worse, when you’re on a boss level, the game doesn’t even give you the option of using self-revive. You are forced to defeat the boss in one complete perfectly executed go or you fail and start over. There’s no help, no reviving, no one there to help you revive.  In the case of the Borg, you’re have to completely kill him in one single go with the weapons you have in hand or you start the boss level over again.  Worse, if you abandon the mission, you have to completely replay the entire intro of the level over again to get back to the boss level inside the dungeon. That may involve 20 minutes of lead-up to get into the dungeon again.

But, if you didn’t enter the level equipped with the correct shield or weapon load out, don’t bother trying to do that in combat.  We’ll discuss weapon load outs shortly.

Extraction points

This game ‘binds’ your character to an extraction point that are post-like markers with a purple light (and an ammo dispenser near it). Once you get close to one of these markers, your character will become bound to it. If you extract, your character will end up back at one of these markers.  As you drive by the markers, your character will become bound to them.  Note, however, that these markers only appear on major roads. So, if you drive off-road all of the time or fast travel, you could leave yourself vulnerable to an extraction point that is a very long way away from where you presently are. So, if you’re doing an arkfall and you extract, you’re going to end up a very long way away from that arkfall and will have to spend the time to drive all the way back over there.

This is really one of the sore points of this game.  There should be twice as many extraction points as there are.  In fact, when an arkfall goes up, an extraction point should appear for the duration of the arkfall. So, if you have to extract, you end up somewhere close to the arkfall again. Better, if you’re in an arkfall, it should bind you to the arkfall until it’s done. Just extract me into the arkfall location where I previously was.  Why force me to drive a huge distance just to get back to it? Not very well thought out.

Weapon Load Outs from the Menu

The menu system in this game is also poorly designed. In most games like this, you would have a weapon wheel where you can assign your favorite weapons for easy access during active combat. Not in this game. You have to open a menu (which can take 10-20 seconds to completely draw), then you have to select the slot and dig through a scrolling list of weapons to place into the weapon slot (another 5-10 seconds).  The entire screen is completely covered with the menu so you cannot see any live actoin at all. Yet, everything remains live. There is no pause. So, your character is completely vulnerable while you diddle in the menu.

Bad bad BAD. This is one of the worst combat menu systems I’ve seen in a game like this. If you need access to weapons/grenades and shields easily and quickly, you NEED a selection wheel that pops up right inside the game over the top of the live gameplay. Sure, let us fill this wheel with our own weapons of choice, but after that, we can easily choose the weapon we want to use.  Instead, you have a completely cumbersome menu system that completely obscures live combat and that takes 30 seconds (or longer) to walk through. Even then, you can only get easy access to two weapons at a time.

The game offers alternative weapon load outs by pressing Y in the menu and will cycle through 3 different loadout presets, but even that isn’t fast enough to work. This game desperately needs a weapon wheel preset overlay.

Inventory and Menu

Menu System

The menu includes everything to manage your weapons, weapon features, and everything in your inventory. The menu system is really overloaded. Once you get into the menu, you have the base menu which is what appears when you press the start button.  But, there’s even another menu when you press the left trigger.  That pops up a wheel that contains more submenus to get to things like the Defiance Store, Social, Stats, etc.  Then there are the RB and LB sub menus of the main menu which cycles you through weapon modification, EGO powers, and more stats. Why they needed both the wheel menu and the RB menu system, I don’t know. It’s not intuitive and it’s confusing.

One thing, though, is that even with all of these menus, once you have created the look of your character, you’re stuck.  You can’t easily change that look if you don’t like it.  If it’s in the menu system somewhere, it’s well hidden. Suffice it to say that I’ve not found it.

Inventory

Inventory is severely limited.  When you first start out, you get something like 12 slots which you quickly fill. Note, anything you hold takes an inventory slot (shield, weapon or mod). I don’t understand why there’s even a limit in this game. But, it’s here and it severely limits what you can pick up. I’m forever destroying objects to be able to pick up something that’s fallen from an enemy. It’s highly frustrating and highly annoying to constantly have to destroy things to get new things.

Additionally, there is no lock box, locker or any kind of storage system for extra stuff. You constantly have to carry everything with you. You can’t offload your stuff into something you own (a house or a locker or any kind of personal offline storage). The closest you get is the ‘Claim Items’ in the Defiance Store. But, that only holds stuff that won’t fit into your inventory at the time that some quest tries to give it to you. You can’t place anything into the claims item area. It only takes overflow items so you don’t lose it.

No Armor, Only Shields (and they’re limited at that)

This game has no concept of armor.  Only shields.  Once your shields are drained, your health starts draining and then you become incapacitated. With any combat game, armor and armor rating should be a huge part of this game. Even at level 650, your character incapacitates as easily as a level 1 character. The shields you find just really do nothing.  Worse, you cannot modify shields by augmenting their protection levels. This game completely fails for character protection. There’s nothing you can do to help fortify your character’s health or protection. You’re completely at the mercy of the game to provide this protection which it does not do.

Multiplayer and Chat

Don’t bother to try and text chat in this world. The chat window is complete junk. The chat system in this game is never used by anyone because you simply can’t use it. To bring up the chat, you press the D-Pad to the right which opens a small menu, then you have to select the chat window which takes over the whole screen. Then you have to use the Xbox controller chat pad (if you have it) to enter your text. Otherwise, you’re limited to that horrible move-the-cursor-and-press-letters-thing (which is even worse).

If you do decide to chat in the Xbox version, get the controller chat pad. Even that is not enough to make this system work. Instead, grab a headset and plug that in. Voice chat is the only way to do this game. Even still, there aren’t that many people using that. So, what you end up with is most people doing their own things without discussions (except where clans are involved).

TV Show Defiance Tie-In

After the shows air, the game is supposed to change its play in-world to accommodate the changes to the series. So far, I’ve seen none of this. Granted, we’re only 2 episodes in as of this writing, still I see no changes in the world or in any of the missions. So, I’m still waiting for these changes to show. Personally, it looks like hype to me.

Audio and Graphics

The graphics are reasonably decent in most cases but there are a few brilliant places. Mostly, the graphics are average.  The lighting is adequate, but not spectacular. The surface textures are good, but could be better.  The graphics can be glitchy, especially where other online players are concerned.  Players disappear, jump from place to place or just don’t work correctly when other online players are doing their thing. The graphics are mostly smooth when it comes to your player, but it can be glitchy and jumpy at times even then.

The audio soundtrack works quite well. The audio voiceovers are mostly well done, but there are some bugs.  For example, EGO says ‘Shoot it in its hideous Moths’ (you know, those white things that fly around at night) when it specifically means the word Mouth (which is printed on the screen). Trion has not yet corrected this audio track. When dealing with side missions, EGO’s phrases are so generic they sometimes don’t make sense.  EGO also pops in at very inopportune times to say things. Sometimes, I wish she’d just shut up. Also, there are audio drop outs where EGO is supposed to chime in and doesn’t, but the audio volume lowers for up to 5 minutes until something else brings the volume back up. You also get these audio dropouts when entering and leaving buildings.

Overall

Defiance on the Xbox 360 is fun to a point, but is a bit too clumsy and has too many quirks and problems.  After you’ve played it for about a day, it gets old and repetitive really fast. The terrain is small and there’s really very little to do other than arkfalls which also become repetitive and boring. The menu system is cumbersome and annoying. The inventory system is overblown and convoluted, but doesn’t hold nearly enough. There are no long term storage lockers, so you have to destroy items frequently. The lack of a weapon menu wheel severely hampers the combat playability in Defiance. The lack of checkpoints makes playing the game a chore in places, especially boss levels.

I’m giving this game 4.5 stars out of 10.  It needed a whole lot more careful design treatment with playability testing and didn’t get it.

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Why Nintendo’s Miiverse is already dead

Posted in video game, video gaming by commorancy on March 17, 2013

Miiverse is Nintendo’s newest gaming social network only available on the Wii U console.  While it has some benefits, it also has many drawbacks. These drawbacks will become Miiverse’s ultimate failing and why it will ultimately fail to gain traction as a lasting social network.

What exactly is Miiverse?

Miiverse is a gaming social twitter-like network available exclusively through the Nintendo Wii U console and only available by using a Nintendo Network ID (which is also created exclusively on the Wii U console). The Nintendo Network ID (NNID) is much like an Xbox Live ID used on the Xbox.  However, unlike Xbox, you cannot access your Nintendo Network ID from the Internet.  It is only and exclusively available strictly through the Wii U console.  This is one of the major failings of this network and only one of the major reasons why this social network will ultimately fail.

No Internet access to content?

[Update: Miiverse is now available on the Internet in a limited fashion. However, at the time of this article’s publish date, it was not yet available. You can now visit the Miiverse Web Site and see your posts. The below paragraph is here for historical reasons.]

Nope.  There is no web access or any other external access to any of the content placed in Miiverse or, indeed, anything else related to your NNID. So, you cannot review anything about your NNID until you have access to your Wii U console again. This is one of Nintendo’s bright ideas that is ultimately a bad idea. Even Microsoft has learned that you have to allow access to at least pieces of your Xbox Live ID content on the Internet so you can at minimum login and get some information about your Xbox Live account. So, while you can’t get access to the exclusive content on the Xbox, you can at least see your gamer points and profile and set up things about your Xbox Live ID.

This exclusive access via the Wii U console will ultimately be the failing of this network. Basically, if you don’t buy a Wii U, you can’t have access to Miiverse content.  If your console breaks, you have to buy another one to gain access again. There is no way to get access to this content from the web or in any other way than through a Nintendo device. Even Apple produced iTunes so you could at least buy things on the iTunes store without owning an iDevice. Nintendo just doesn’t get it.

Miiverse is limited

Instead of Nintendo providing something more useful like game Achievements, they thought that having a half-baked social network would take the place of this.  Well, as a gamer, I’m here to say that this is not an adequate replacement. Being able to post for help and gain access to it quickly is cool, but you can easily get help by using Google and posting to open forums available on the Internet.  I don’t need Miiverse for this.  Yes, the screen shot feature is cool, but it is limited and the Nintendo admins are strictly fascist with reports of content problems.

Worse, you can’t even edit your posts.  So, if you forget to mark something as a ‘spoiler’, then you cannot fix that. You can only delete your post and start over.  Worse, there’s a 5 minute timer on posts, so if you delete a post and want to repost, you have to wait 5 minutes to fix it.  So, even if the admins mark a problem with your post later, you can’t correct the problem as there’s no way to edit it.  Seriously, if you’re going to flag posts as problems, at least have the decency to add editing tools to modify and correct the problem.

Miiverse administration is stupidly designed and poorly operated

If your content is reported, you can expect that you are always in the wrong. It doesn’t matter whether or not you really are, it matters what the admins say.  And clearly, the admins always side with the person who reports the content and not with the person who created the post.  So, be warned that if someone reports your content, you are always marked as being at fault.  Worse, the whole administration piece is stupidly designed.

There is a ‘Messages’ area where if your content is reported, you will receive a canned response from some anonymous moderator stating that you have violated Miiverse ‘terms and conditions’.  If you want to dispute the process, you can’t.  Your options for response are limited to about 6 different canned responses, none of which are at all appropriate to getting a proper response back from the admins.  No, you cannot write an email or send a text response to someone to ask a question or get clarification.  In fact, if you do need to contact someone in person regarding an issue, you have to go to Nintendo.com, submit their general web form case and then wait for them to provide you with a pin number and the phone number to call in.  That phone number being 1-877-803-3676.  But, don’t try to call it blind.  You will need the pin code provided by a Nintendo staffer to call in. Note, they don’t tell you this anywhere in any documentation or even on the Wii U in Miiverse. You have to somehow just ‘know’ this.

Worse, there is little the admins can really do short of removing the post which they should really be doing anyway. If they delete your NNID, you can simply create another one.  Sure, you might lose all your content associated with the old ID, but it’s not like you had achievement points associated with it anyway. You will lose any posts you made, but no big deal there either.  It’d basically be like losing a private twitter feed that no one but Wii U users have access to. It would not be like losing your Twitter account which would be a much bigger deal.  Although, you might lose money you’ve built up in the Nintendo store, but that’s something I’m not sure of yet.

Yeahs vs Spoilers

There is a ‘Spoilers’ flag that can be set on a post.  Unfortunately, you cannot mark something as a spoiler after the fact and it only takes one report by some random schmo for your post to be thrown into question as being a spoiler. This then throws the content into some random admin’s queue who really doesn’t care and will always side with the person who reported.  You can’t dispute this process at all.  So, your only action left is to delete the post which the admins could have done anyway.

Posts can be marked with a ‘Yeah’ (which is akin to Facebook’s Like feature), but these have no bearing on whether or not it’s a spoiler. With spoilers, you have to report it through a form.  Once reported, an anonymous moderator makes the decision whether it violates terms.  But, it doesn’t matter if it does or doesn’t.  You’re already guilty and you will always be in the wrong. Nintendo is not taking any chances, so the poster of the content will always be dinged on the content. So, how exactly does any of this in any way incent any gamer to want to participate in this network knowing they’re going to have run-ins with admins? Nintendo, you’re biting the hand that’s feeding you.

With any game, any still image is considered a spoiler.  If you’re showing game content, that’s a spoiler for someone. So, it doesn’t matter what image you’ve posted, if someone reports it as a spoiler, it is a spoiler (at least according to Nintendo). This is the wrong approach for a social network. Nintendo shouldn’t be making the decisions about spoilers. Social networks need to operate on likes or thumbs down features.  Instead of taking the word of only one person (which is currently what it takes for Miiverse), it should be self-policed by the software based on the consensus of a number of people participating in the social network.  If a number of people tag something as a spoiler, then mark it as a spoiler automatically. Problem solved with no personnel intervention involved.  Don’t flag an account as in ‘violation of terms’ with this silly and stupid canned response system.  Just automatically take action by allowing the users to self-police the content.  Again, if more people mark it as not a spoiler than those who do, it remains visible as not a spoiler.  Social networks should be governed by those participating in the social network, not by Nintendo employees. Nintendo clearly doesn’t understand the concept of a social network or how it should operate.

Deleting Content

If you decide to delete all of your Miiverse posts, you might as well just go delete your entire NNID.  It’s a whole lot faster.  Trying to weed through your old posts on Miiverse is like watching paint dry. This entire process is majorly botched, hugely time consuming and barely works.  I had about 170 posts and it took me nearly 2 hours to delete most of them. Suffice it to say that you have to refresh the entire list of posts each time you want to get to the next post to delete.  And, because they only load a screen at a time, you have to wait when you pull the screen up for it to load more posts in. Worse, you have to basically unfriend and unfollow everyone in your list to limit this list to just your posts so you’re not scrolling through tons of other people’s posts to get to your own.  Worse, there’s no way to see, at a glance, who you’ve friended or followed.  So, you have to just weed through the ‘Activity Feed’ to find the people you’ve friended and followed. Note, I’m not even filling in half of the details here for deleting content, but suffice it to say that Miiverse was not designed to delete your old content.

No opt-out

If you don’t want to participate in Miiverse, there is no way to do this on the Wii U console.  Basically, you have to disconnect your Wii U from the network to not participate in Miiverse. There is no option on the Wii U console to turn it off or in any other way opt-out.  Note that as long as you have an NNID associated with your Wii U, your console will log into the Miiverse service and show you content on the carousel screen even if you don’t want to participate.

Overall, Miiverse seems like a good idea, but it’s badly designed, poorly implemented and poorly operated.  Yes, the one thing that it does is allow for quick access to help, but that one feature is completely overshadowed by how poorly the entire software is conceived and implemented. I personally cannot recommend this social network for any use other than for a quick ‘Help I’m stuck’ kind of question. Even then, I would suggest using Google first as it will likely be faster.

If you are a parent and don’t want your child participating in this social network, you have no option to turn it off from within the Wii U console.  So, if you’re thinking of buying a Wii U console for your child, you should be well aware of this fact before you consider that purchase. If you would prefer your child to not participate in this poorly run social network, then you should probably consider a different console purchase.  Additionally, considering that Nintendo is having major troubles even roping in developers to put their AA titles on the Wii U, I’d say purchasing (or, rather, not purchasing) the Wii U is pretty much a no-brainer.

Done with Miiverse

I’ve given Miiverse a fair shake and have come to conclusion that because of its limited usefulness and Nintendo’s fascist moderators and ‘terms and conditions’ coupled with bad software design, I can’t be part of that community. This is the reason I deleted all of my content on there. I may yet delete my NNID and just be done with it.

Until Nintendo can figure out that this social network design is crap and until they redesign it from the ground up, my suggestion is to avoid using Miiverse as its sole value is extremely limited and may actually cause more harm than good for some people.  Nintendo, you need to figure this out fast.

Sony PS4 announced.. blah blah blah

Posted in video game, video gaming by commorancy on February 24, 2013

So Sony officially announced the PS4.  But, before I say anything, let’s let their specs do the some talking:

Main processor

  • Single-chip custom processor
  • CPU: low power x86-64 AMD “Jaguar”, 8 cores
  • GPU: 1.84 TFLOPS, AMD Radeon™ Graphics Core Next engine

AV output

  • Analog-AV out
  • Digital Output (optical)

Communication

  • Ethernet (10BASE-T, 100BASE-TX, 1000BASE-T)
  • IEEE 802.11 b/g/n
  • Bluetooth® 2.1 (EDR)

Optical Drive (Read only)

  • BD 6xCAV
  • DVD 8xCAV

Super-Speed I/O USB (USB 3.0), AUX
Hard Disk Drive Built -in
Memory GDDR5 8GB

In addition to the actual console specs, Sony also announced a Dual Shock 4 controller with a touch surface on the controller.  Nothing like the Wii U controller, mind you, but a finger touch surface (like a glide pad on a notebook).

Wait.. What? Is this real?

Let me start by saying whoopee! =sarcasm off= My first thought after reading this spec sheet is, “WTF? Is this for real? This has got to be a joke, right?” And then it sank in, this wasn’t a joke and it is for real. This hardware is so 5 years ago. It’s basically a glorified PC with 8 cores and a reasonably slow one at that. I’m definitely not impressed. This is most definitely not what I expected to see from Sony. A glorified PC with a Radeon card as the new PS4?

So, why is this a problem? Let me count the ways…

1) No backwards compatibility to the PS3. The AMD chip is in no way compatible with the PS3’s cell processors. So, unless Sony has asked AMD to build in cell core backwards compatibility, the best we can hope for is emulation. And, with emulation comes slowness and games that feel sluggish, choppy and crappy. Sure, they might play, but they’re not likely to play WELL. That’s the difficulty with emulation.

B) It’s a PC.  I’ll say that again, it’s a PC… and not a particularly great one at that. The graphics card might be somewhere close to a mid to mid-high end card in today’s market, but again Sony has trapped themselves into outdated graphics before the console is even released. Unless they plan to release this ‘PC’ in the next 3-6 months, this thing will be outdated and worthless when it arrives.  Sure, it may be faster than the PS3 today, but what difference does that make in the grand scheme?  If a then $300 netbook runs rings around the PS4 in speed, it’s a DOA device. Sure, I love consoles, but I want them to be cool, sleek and unique, not mundane and something I could buy anywhere.

What Sony should have done here is ask for a modular slot for a graphics card. Then, when the card gets outdated, pop in a new updated card.  This does two things for Sony. 1) A modular slot allows the console to remain relevant independent of the processors. The processors will remain relevant far longer than the graphics processor.  In addition, the GPU can be used for game processing. 2) A modular graphics card slot would allow for many uses all across the board. Placing components into modern PCs should become easier and also allow upgrading graphics cards in such devices as netbooks and notebooks easily. This is a pioneer and innovative approach to creating a new device.

iii) Ok, so I have to concede that it will be compatible with PC games IF Sony doesn’t blunder the PC part of it. That is, if they license Windows (of any variety) from Microsoft, they can at least pull in all of the PC game titles that get released (or at least have them ported much more easily). But, that’s not necessarily going to save this turd… ahem, console.

Sony’s day is Done

Sony has been the odd man out in gaming recently and their lack of innovation in gaming is very much apparent. What Sony needs is something innovative, and the PS4 isn’t it. The Wii U is innovative.  Sure, it’s got issues due to launch immaturity, but that will be corrected through updates. Sony’s product is immature and it will clearly remain that way throughout its life. You can’t turn a Hyundai into a Tesla. That just doesn’t work. Sony’s product is clearly a crap attempt at a new console.

Sony, take this idea, rework it and make it loads better. Then come back and re-release the specs.  This is a crap first attempt at a new console.  Let’s start from here and make it better. Otherwise, your current PS3 lackluster sales will turn into no sales when the PS4 arrives.

Right now, the only thing Sony has going for their entire gaming market is the PS Vita. They better damn well hope they can get some decent games out for the Vita because the PS4 is even less attractive than the PS Vita.

Next Gen Gaming

This is definitely not what I expected to see for a next gen gaming platform. We need to move towards more realistic 3D gaming, not towards commodity hardware. The Wii-U definitely heads in the right direction with innovation. It’s not going to take much for Microsoft’s new Xbox to kick it out of the ballpark. In fact, if Microsoft can in any way integrate a Surface tablet into the gaming experience of the new Xbox, it’ll be a whole lot more innovative than this Sony console has any hope of being.  Sony, take it back to the drawing board and rethink it. I think I’ll call it now, the Playstation home console brand is now officially dead. Sony better hope the PS Vita can carry SCEA onward.

Gaming Innovation: The Dark Age of Gaming?

Posted in botch, drought, entertainment, video game, video game design, video gaming by commorancy on January 27, 2013

I’m a relatively hard core gamer.  I’ve played video games for ages and have owned nearly every console ever made.  I say nearly every console, but there are some I’ve chosen not to own.  Specifically, the Vectrex, the Neo Geo and the Atari Jaguar, just to name a few.  Basically, lesser consoles that really didn’t go anywhere.  I digress.

Necessity is the mother of invention

Entertainment is a huge business.  With music, movies, books and theater, it was inevitable that when electronic technology was invented, someone would find a way to use it for entertainment value.  Enter Nolan Bushnell who created the first commercially sold arcade video game.  Albeit, not the first coin operated video game.  Needless to say, after that the race was on.  Magnavox was the first to the home market with their Magnavox Odyssey console without sound and which included a game similar to the later Atari Pong.

These early video games sparked a revolution in home electronic entertainment that leads us up to video games we play today.  From the widescreen hardcore franchises such as Call of Duty, Halo, Assassin’s Creed, Grand Theft Auto, Zelda and Need for Speed to the massively online multiplayer systems of World of Warcraft to the small screen games like Farmville and Angry Birds.  We have tons of options for entertaining ourselves with video games.  All of these games are massive leaps ahead of Pong, Space Invaders, Defender and Battle Zone of years long past.

Waxing Nostalgic

I look fondly on these past video games for a lot of reasons.  They were inventive and different.  The developers were always trying to find a new way to bring their idea to that small 4:3 arcade screen.  And ‘wow’ us they did with such inventive titles as Gauntlet, Paperboy, Battle Zone, Marble Madness, Joust, Sinistar, Dig Dug and even Donkey Kong.  Simplistic games, yes, but challenging, unique and different.  These were games that really defied categorization other than being ‘level based’, but just about every game today has levels. These spurred our imagination and let us meld into that video game world for a short time and then move to another one with a completely different concept.  To take our minds off of whatever it was we were doing.  Yes, these were all arcade games, but they were inventive, unique and different.  In fact, during the arcade heyday, it was rare to find games copying each other.

Lack of Inventiveness

Gone are those unique inventive days where you could walk into an arcade and find something new, original and unique to play. Today, it’s all about the almighty buck.  Well, 60 of them actually.  It’s less about producing something inventive and more about producing something developers think kids will buy.  Developers have lost their inventive edge.

Today, games are categorized into genres:

  • First Person Shooter (FPS)
  • Third Person Shooter (TPS)
  • Rail Shooter
  • Sports: Hockey, Football, Basketball, Snowboarding, Skateboarding, Surfing, Hunting/Fishing
  • Online Multiplayer (MMO)
  • Campaign based
  • Button Masher (aka Fighting)
  • Real Time Simulation (RTS)
  • Music
  • 2D side scroller
  • Role Playing
  • Open World (the most rare type of games)
  • Simulation

There are rarely any games today that break or even attempt to break these molds.  Occasionally, something comes along that tries to think different like Naughty Bear, Traxxpad or Rez.  Or, games that try to combine genres like Grand Theft Auto (mission based with free roaming) in a unique way.  But, these games are so few that you might not even see one per year.

Talent Drought?

I’m beginning to wonder what’s going on with developers.  Are they really so adamant that the above genres is all there is?  Have we lost our ability to invent new things?  Are we moving into a new self-inflicted Dark Age?  I’m not talking about not having entertainment, no.  I’m talking about that we as a society have become so jaded, that we won’t accept any new ideas in games? Personally, I want to see more Pongs, Defenders and Marble Madnesses.  Not specifically these games, but the idea that these games represent.  That is, something new, unique and different.

Take Portal and Portal 2, for instance.  These are a completely unique and different take on the first person shooter. This game has also become a commercial success in its own right.  It’s a mostly non-violent game built on a relatively unique story, puzzles and lots of humor.  The game itself involves challenging puzzles.  These games are from Gabe Newell’s Valve.  I’ve always found that Valve’s games tend to involve more unique ideas and less trying to fit molds.  Valve, unfortunately, is mostly the odd-man-out.  The development cycles are extremely long for games from Valve.  It might take 5 years to release the next installment.  But, I’m willing to wait 5 years to get a unique game experience that’s unlike anything else I’ve ever played.

Unfortunately, most game developers today just want to make the next quick buck instead of putting out award winning high quality unique gaming experiences.  This leaves the gaming market fairly high, dry and devoid of unique games.

What’s left are the Batman Arkhams of the world which always inevitably come down to being a button masher after everything is said and done.  Yes, they wrap the Batman games around a seemingly open world, but when it comes down to the final boss, it’s just another glorified fighting game.  I don’t want yet another reason to get carpal tunnel.  I want to have a unique gaming experience.  I want to be challenged not by how fast I mash my thumb against a button, but how I can think strategically.  How I can take down the final enemy on my own terms, not on the video game designer’s terms.

Inventiveness Reignited

Basically, give me open worlds to roam.  Give me tools to use in that world.  Let me level up as I gain experience in the world.  Give me stores where I can buy things.  Let me even buy the stores themselves.  Let me earn money to spend.  But don’t force me into a final boss sequence that requires me to follow a script.  If you’re going to give me an open world, give it to me all the way.  Let me make my own final boss choices.  Let me decide how to deal with the final boss on my own terms.  Give me the tools to deal with him or her as I see fit.  If you provide cages and I choose to lock the boss in a cage and send that cage off to a prison, that’s my ending choice.  If I choose to have a final button masher battle, my choice. If I choose a strategic battle systematically wiping out all of the boss’s advantages, my choice. If I choose to befriend them and go off with them into the sunset, my choice.  Open world means open world and all that goes with that.

Choice is what we have in life.  Taking that away in video games and forcing a contrived outcome during the final moments is just not inventive.  It’s trite.  It’s cliche.  It’s frustrating.  We’ve spent hours getting to that point only to find out that the final battle is basically a complete waste of time.  That the ending is ‘stupid’.

No, simply provide the gaming tools.  That’s all the game needs to do.  Let the gamer choose the final outcome entirely.  Sure, you can tie in some befitting movie ending dialog sequence, that’s fine.  But, how I choose to end my game should be my choice, not some game developer’s choice who was sitting in a room miles away and months ago making that decision.  Let me make my own decisions, my own choices which result in my own outcomes.  I realize that games need to have some form of rules, so there are limits to what can be provided.  But, within those limits, let me choose how to use them all.  Don’t rope me into a small area, don’t take away all of my advantages that I earned, don’t throw 40 men at me and expect me to button mash them all out of existence in a few minutes.  Again, I don’t need aching joints and to inflame the median nerve running down my hand.  Give me strategic options.  Let me utilize the tools I’ve spent hours obtaining through the game to my own full strategic advantage.  Giving me all of those tools and then taking them all away only to force a 40 man fight is worthless, frustrating and not at all inventive.

Even Better Ideas?

Better, give me games that break FPS/TPS molds.  Give me games where the idea is completely unique.  There are many ways to devise video games in 3D worlds that don’t involve the tired FPS mold.  I want new unique games.  Games that involve strategic thinking, unique environments, unique character traits (super powers of my choice).  As an example, how about a superhero role playing game?  Let me choose my character’s traits, history, powers, good vs evil, etc.  Let me choose the outcomes that unfolds.  Let me write my own story and outcomes?

How about a game within a game?  The gamer becomes a gamer within the game and who gets lost in that video game world only to work his/her way back out?  There are lots of cool story ideas.  It’s the stories here that matter, the gaming aspect is just the tool to get it there.

Basically, we need inventive new unique gaming experiences that do not presently exist.  I want to see games that are today as inventive as Pong was back in its day.  Games that inspire gamers to think, rather than blindly mash buttons.  I like thinking and strategy games within an action framework.  Not so much puzzles as in pulling ropes to open doors, but even more unique then that.  Let’s get some new ideas flowing into the gaming world.  It’s definitely time.

Where are all the games?

Unfortunately, there is a major game drought today.  We have many many consoles today: PS3, Xbox, PS Vita, Wii U and even the iPad, yet we’re firmly stuck playing the ‘AA’ titles which are neither inventive nor unique.  In fact, most of them are rehashes of rehashes.  Things that we’ve both played before and will likely play again.  I don’t want to play games I’ve already played.  I want to play new unique games.  Games that I look at and think, “Wow, this is cool.  I’ve never played something like that”.  I don’t want to get to the end only to find out that I’m trapped in the ever-so-familiar button masher.  I want strategic choices to the outcomes.  Games should actually reward players for the most unique ways to end the game.

Even though we have only just ended out 2012 and there were many titles released at the end of 2012, not many of them were truly imaginative titles.  Yes, there were highlights in some games, but most of them are far too often been-there-done-that experiences.

Even though EA, Atari, Capcom and the other big gaming companies are out there working to produce new games, they’re just not providing quality original games.  They’re providing, at best, copies of previously released and rehashed game ideas.  Nearly every one of those big game company games is boring within the first day of play.  It’s too easy to get stuck into a firm set of rules that force the player into silly and frustrating game play.  If the bosses end up being simple button mashers only to provide the same enemies wave after wave, what makes development companies think that this is what gamers really want?  After a while it just becomes mindless, monontonous and boring.  The point to entertainment is to entertain.  There is nothing entertaining about tedium, frustration and boredom.  It’s no wonder I see a lot of gamers posting ‘I’m bored’ on forums even when they own games like Call of Duty.  Yes, they are boring.

I suggest that by bringing back inventiveness, uniqueness and originality in games, a whole lot more people will become interested in games and we will become, once again, entertained.

Resident Evil 6: Complete disappointment

Posted in video game, video game design, video gaming by commorancy on October 6, 2012

As you may or may not know, I also like gaming.  Specifically, RPG and first and third person shooters.  Well, at least some first and third person shooters, anyway.  Whether I like it depends on how it’s done.  In this case Resident Evil 6 is not done well at all.

Resident Evil Franchise

Even though this game series has turned into a fairly hefty cash cow for both Milla Jovovich (and hubby) in the celluloid format, the games have been relatively uninspired for the last several years.  The last really good Resident Evil game was RE4 and that was years ago.  Well, I’m sad to say that Resident Evil 6 is a complete and total disappointment in the gaming department. Capcom just can’t figure this out.  For whatever reasons, the developers over at Capcom Japan just aren’t with the program.

The absolute best game of this franchise is still, bar none, Resident Evil 4.  This game had all the makings of turning the franchise into a smash hit.  Unfortunately, the game developers decided to try something new with whole tag-along partner thing in RE5 which failed miserably, by the way.  That game was an unmitigated disaster.  It had no depth, the story was boring, the fights were stupid and the fact that you had to keep your partner alive in the middle of the fights was asinine.  There was no fun to be had with that game at all.

You’d think Capcom could have figured out that the reason Resident Evil 5 flopped so badly was that it was just so poorly done.  Yet, here we are with Resident Evil 6 bringing in much of the boring and silly storylines from 5 even though Leon is heading this chapter up.  It’s unfortunate, too.  This could have been such a great addition if Capcom had even minimally listened to its fanbase. No, they did their own thing again and assumed this is what we wanted in a game. They could not have been more wrong.

Seriously, Resident Evil 6 doesn’t even have a pause button!?!?  You can’t even pause the effing game.  I mean, seriously?  Why not?  Every other game on the planet has figured out how to pause, why is Resident Evil 6 the exception?  You can’t even step away to go take a pee without some zombies nailing you.  What fun is there in that?

Worse, when you restart the game, it takes you back almost an entire chapter just to begin again.  You can’t even start at the point where you left off.  Seriously, this is one extremely badly designed game.  On top of just these stupid design issues, the gameplay is sluggish, awkward and the collision detection is some of the worst I’ve seen in a game in a very long time.

No awards for this turd

As much as Capcom seems to think this is some award winning thing, it’s a festering piece of feces covered in flies. It has no redeeming value at all.  This game is so bad, it’ll be in the bargain bin in 60 days.  Less, I’d venture. If you really want this game, just wait about 30 days and pick it up on the cheap.  Even then, why waste your time with this dreadful game?  Go pick up Skyrim or Fallout 3 or Portal or some other much better game than this and spend some time with a quality game.  If you really love Resident Evil, pick up Resident Evil 4.  It’s still far far outshines anything Capcom has ever done to date in this series.  RE4 is, in fact, so far ahead of every other RE game that I can’t even fathom that Capcom had a hand in writing it.  In fact, they probably didn’t.

It’s unfortunate that Capcom doesn’t quite get the gaming landscape today. Resident Evil 6 had so much it could have been and the developers just squandered away that opportunity.  This is and will be the last Resident Evil game I buy from Capcom.  No more throwing good money after bad.  Capcom get with the program.  As they say, once bitten, twice shy.  No more Capcom titles in my house.

[UPDATE 2012-10-24: Thanks Riko]

Apparently you can pause the game, but only if you turn off multiplayer (?) features.  Note, however, that I didn’t ‘turn on’ any multiplayer features when I played.  I just played the game with however the campaign started.  If that enables multiplayer features, I didn’t know it.  Worse, I wasn’t playing multiplayer at all, however.  I was playing the game in as though it were a single person campaign. That this game apparently turns on multiplayer features even though you are not using it (and worse, blocking the pause feature) is just stupid game design.  I have to agree with Riko.  This game is one big turd named starting with an s and ending with a t.

Stars: 1/2 out of 5 (Capcom gets the 1/2 star for effort).

Mass Effect 3: Stunning Graphics, Disappointing Story

Posted in video game, video game design, video gaming by commorancy on March 19, 2012

I’ve played all three of the Mass Effect games from start to finish.  I just finished Mass Effect 3 and I’d have to say I’m quite a bit disappointed by the conclusion of this trilogy.  Note, spoilers ahead so stop reading now if you haven’t played this game yet.

Story Inconsistencies Abound

So, Shepard is off saving the Galaxy at the Citadel and about to pull the kill switch on the Crucible and where is the Normandy?  Careening through Mass Effect hyperspace heading some place random.  Ok, so this part makes no sense at all.  Why would the Normandy be galavanting around the Galaxy at the most important time of all…. when the Crucible is being activated?  It makes absolutely no sense.  Not to mention, Shepard is the commander of that vessel.  So, why would it be off running around on its own without Shepard, anyway?  The Normandy should be right there front and center to see the fireworks display, not off running around in Mass Effect Hyperspace.  I shake my head at whomever thought that story line up.  Yes, I realize that Shepard’s team was overrun by a Reaper.  But, Shepard has seen worse odds then that. Why would the Normandy suddenly decide to split?  So now, Joker and Cortez exit the Normandy and the rest of the crew, who mysteriously do not exit the crashed Normandy, end up on some random planet stuck there without any way home.

Disappointing ending

There are two paths at the end for Shepard.  Unfortunately, neither of them are particularly pleasant endings for him.  However, once Shepard chooses one of two paths, the endings are pretty similar in his final outcome.  Humanity, on the other hand, isn’t necessarily spared either way.  The Reapers are gone for the moment, but they could still come back again based on the ‘entity’ who lives in the Citadel.  But now, the Mass Effect relays are destroyed either way when the Crucible is activated.  Without the Mass Effect relays, there is no way to fast travel anywhere in that universe.

Unfortunately, the two paths are way too convenient and similar in outcome.  Why isn’t there a non-action path or other paths?  Seriously, why does Shepard have to choose one of two paths?  He could simply walk away and let the Reapers do their deeds or find another way.   Clearly, he hadn’t gotten that far into it to just walk away, but why isn’t there more than two options?  Further, why is it that Shepard has to die anyway?  Although, we don’t know specifically that he’s dead, it strongly implies as much.  Once the ending cinematic ceases, it cuts to every place other than the Citadel.  So, we really don’t know what became of the Citadel.

Rescuing Shepard?

Getting back to the Normandy issue, this raises another concern.  Shepard’s love interest that is fostered during the game, why doesn’t this person stay and try to rescue Shepard?  In fact, why isn’t that person even there.  Seriously, a love interest that just leaves and goes somewhere else?  The Normandy and its rescue shuttles should have been there as soon as Shepard pulled the trigger and, at the last minute, fished him off of the Citadel platform.  In fact, the shuttle itself could have triggered what was necessary (at least for one of the endings).

Plot holes abound here too.  If Shepard is to be the ‘savior’ of the Galaxy, there would have been prophecies foretold in at least one alien culture.  Specifically, I’d bet on the Asari.  But, no prophecies existed.  In fact, they should have.  In fact, Shepard should have been roped into a meeting with a seer of some kind who would give him ‘bad news’ about his ending, but also given hope that he has a choice.

Elusive Man

Another issue that just pokes at me for inconsistency, the Elusive Man’s sudden appearance on the Citadel + Crucible when Shepard is trying to find the controls to open the Citadel for the Crucible. He has never appeared in person at any part of the game other than in his round control room.  Granted, Shepard and enemies make short work of that room leaving it as a disaster.  But, he should have other bases.  Also, what’s with all the black all over the Elusive Man’s face?  I get the distinct impression that the Elusive Man on the Citadel was not, in fact, the Elusive Man.  I believe it was either a carefully crafted AI Robot or a remote controlled clone of the Elusive Man.

Game Play Changes

With this game, the game is about 50% gameplay and 50% cinematics.  Bioware/EA has also opted to add a ‘cinematic’ play mode which, I personally believe, ruined the whole gaming experience in all modes.  Worse, the whole army readiness thing is a severe joke.  You spend a ton of time trying to find ‘war assets’ and at the end it doesn’t appear to make any difference.  I was at least expecting some kind of tactics simulation like Dune or Halo Wars.  So, you could pick troops and make them go after Reapers to see how effective they would be.  Didn’t happen.  In fact, that whole part of the game was, as far as I can tell, a total waste of time.  This game leaned so much toward cinema, I’d barely call it a shooter and it’s definitely not an RPG.  Yes, Bioware left the leveling up and powers in there, but there was so little to do with them.

The Crucible is the only way?

So this device, thing, gadget, just didn’t really work for me.  I mean, there have to be other means at destroying the Reapers than the Crucible.  Sure, the Crucible is definitely one option that Shepard (and troops) should consider, but there should have been at least two or three other options available like some other super weapons discovered in a remote planet.  In fact, there should have been scientists out there devising a means to kill the Reapers through a virus, bad code or even the Geth.  In fact, depending on which fleets you end up having as allies, the method of Reaper destruction should change based on those fleets.  The tactics and methods of destruction should also be available.  This is supposed to be an RPG, so let’s treat it as one.  Alas, didn’t happen.

Best Part of this Game

Basically, you play it for the eye candy.  The characters look amazing.  The environments and lighting are perfect.  The player movements from motion capture, outstanding.  The voice acting, the backstory of the characters and the sheer character interaction is perfect. The music fits very well and works quite well in the game.  When you do get gunfire gameplay, it’s trivially easy, but it is quite fun.  However, there’s just simply not enough of it.  The questing part of the game, of which there’s far too little if this is supposed to be an RPG, is also fun. Don’t go into this game expecting an outstanding storyline.  That’s not where this game shines.  This game shines in how the gameplay unfolds.  Mostly, the interactions between the crew and Shepard is where this game shines and is the most satisfying parts of this game.

Ending

The ending of this game was a complete disappointment on so many levels.  For me, the ending completely ruined the fun I was having with exploring the Milky Way, the Citadel and various other worlds.  The impending threat is always there, but you can safely ignore it until you get to the end. Leave it to EA to mess this one up. The gameplay is, well, what game play?  You’re sitting there watching a cinematic unfold at the end.  That’s it.  No bosses, no battles, nothing.  Just watching a movie.  I didn’t buy this game to watch a movie.  I realize cinematics are a big part of games today, but that was just too much.  On top of that, the story (based on the above) just makes little sense.

Shepard is either dead, consumed or heavily incapacitated.  The Mass Effect Relays are completely destroyed throughout the galaxy (choosing either path) and the Normandy is inexplicably stranded on some random world somewhere remote. Worse, once the deed is done, all you see is some text that says ‘Shepard is now regarded as a hero’.  Wait, what?  Seriously?  You can’t even show a celebration from the troops, a commendation animation, a memorial service, a world rebuilding animation or even a news clip from the news anchor who was on board the Normandy nearly all of the time?  Clearly, the ending was rushed and the game’s story wasn’t that well thought out.  There are way too many loose ends here to call this a satisfying conclusion to a trilogy.  I hope they are planning for Mass Effect 4 because this ending leaves me saying, “huh?” and desiring a whole lot more fitting conclusion to Shepard’s life and celebration of his life.

Oh, and what’s with the severely bad voice acting of the father and son storytelling clip at the end?  Is that supposed to suggest that the whole thing was made up by some guy just to amuse his son?  Seriously?

Randosity Related Article: Analysis of Mass Effect 3’s Ending

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Video game designers stuck in a rut

Posted in video game, video game design, video gaming by commorancy on March 4, 2009

Video game consoles, such as the PS3, Wii and Xbox 360 (and even PC’s) have gotten more complex and provide impressive 3D capabilities and 5.1 sound.  Yet, video games have not.  There was a time many years ago when video game designers would take chances and create unique and unusual titles.  Games that challenge the mind and challenge the video gamer’s thought processes.  Games used to be fun to play.

In recent years…

Today, most games fall into a very small subset of genres: First/Third Person Shooter, Fighting, RPG, Simulation, Sports or Music (with a few lesser genres appearing occasionally).  While the innovation in the hardware continues to progress, the video game designers are not progressing.  Sure, it takes time to get actors into a studio to record tracks.  Sure, it takes time to build and rig up 3D models.  Sure, it takes time to motion capture realistic action to plug into those 3D models.  Yes, it takes time to program all of those complex algorithms to make it all work as a whole. I understand all of that.  But that’s the process, not the innovation.  These are the tools necessary to get the job done.  They are a means to an end and not the end in itself.

Design considerations

For whatever reason, big video game executives have it in their heads that the tried-and-true model sells a video game.  That may be true to some degree, but you can also wear-out-your-welcome with overused techniques.   In other words, when a game title sucks, the word spreads FAST in the video game community.  That can stop a video game’s sales dead.

When starting a new game project, the producer and creative staff need to decide whether or not they are planning on introducing something new and innovative.  First and third person shooters (FPS/TPS) have already been done and done and done and done again ad nauseam.  That’s not to say that yet another TPS or FPS can’t be successful.  It can.. IF there’s something compelling to the game… and that’s a big IF.

Sure, there are video gamers who will play anything they can get their hands on (known as video game fanatics).  But, as a game developer, you can’t rely on these gamers to carry your title to success.  These gamers do not necessarily make up the majority of the game buying public.  As far as myself, I am an much more discriminating buyer.  I simply won’t buy every title that comes along.  I pick and choose the titles based on the styles of games I know that I like to play.  For example, I do not buy turn-based games of any sort.  I don’t care if it’s based on dice rolls or card draws whether in a fighting, FPS or RPG game.  I won’t buy them because turn-based games get in the way of actual playing.  Turn-based games also tend to be antiquated.  I understand where turn-based play came from (i.e., board games).  But, it has no place in a 3D world based video game.

Again, choosing to add turn-based play into your game is your decision as a developer.  But, by doing so, you automatically exclude gamers who won’t buy turn-based games, like myself.  There are gamers who do enjoy turn-based games, but I don’t know of any gamers who won’t buy real-time play styles and buy only turn-based.  So, you automatically limit those who purchase your game to those who buy turn based.  But, by making your game real-time, you include a much bigger audience.

These are up-front design considerations that, as a developer and producer, you need to understand about gamer buying habits.  These are decisions that can directly affect the success of your video game title.

Previous innovations

In the early days of 3D console games (mid-80s through mid-90s), game developers were willing to try new and unusual things.  Of course, these were the days when 3D was limited to flat untextured surfaces.  We’ve come a long way in the graphics arena.  But, even as far as we’ve come in producing complex and unusual 3D worlds within the games, the play styles have become firmly stagnant.  For example, most First/Third person shooters today rely on a very linear story to get from point A to point B.  Driving the game along is an invisible path.  So, while the complex 3D world is wonderfully constructed, the character can only see the world from a limited vantage point.   The cameras are usually forced to be in one spot (near or behind the character).  The character is forced to traverse the world through a specific path with invisible boundaries.   So, exploration of the world is limited to what the game designer and story allow you to do.

This style of game is very confining.  It forces the gamer to play the game on the programmer’s terms rather than on the gamer’s terms.  Worse, when this play style is combined with checkpoint saves, health meters and other confining aspects, these games can easily become tedious and frustrating.  So, what a game developer may consider to be ‘challenging’, in reality becomes frustration.

A shot of new innovation

The video game development world needs is to open is collective eyes.  Don’t rely on the tried-and-true.  Don’t relay on formulas.  Don’t assume that because a previous game worked that your next game will also work.  What works is what video gamers like.  What doesn’t work is what video gamers don’t like.  The video game community is very vocal, so listen to your audience and learn.  Most of all, try new things… and by that I don’t mean tweaking an existing formula.  I mean, take a risk.  Try something new.  Let gamers explore the world.  Produce worlds that are open and complete.  Let gamers build things.  Let gamers take the game to whole new levels.  Build in construction sets to allow gamers to create things you have never thought of.  Build in ways to save the constructions to web sites and allow gamers to monetize the things they’ve built.

These are innovations that lead to progress.  These are innovations that instill addictiveness into the game.  These are innovations that keep your game alive for years to come.  You only need to look at the popularity of Second Life, World of Warcraft and even the Elder Scrolls series to understand that an unlimited world with construction kits allow gamers to take the game into directions you’ve never even thought of.

Most games play through in only a few weeks (sometimes less than 1 week).  The gamer buys it, plays it through and then trades it in never to touch it again.  This is effectively a movie rental.  So, once the gamers have had their fill, the game is effectively dead.  This style of game does not provide your company with a continued stream of revenue from that title.  Only titles that have open ends, that offer expansion packs, and that allow gamers to construct things on their own are the games that keep a title alive for years rather than a few weeks.

 That may require a slightly bigger cash outlay in the beginning (to support a title that has a longer lifespan), but if done correctly, should also provide much more income for that game company.  This is why titles like Fallout 3, Oblivion: Elder Scrolls IV and World of Warcraft are talked about months (and even years) after the game’s initial release.  But, forgettable games like Fracture, Too Human or even Force Unleashed have no extra play value after the game ends.

Gaming elements incorrectly used

In too many game designs, programming elements are used incorrectly to ‘challenge’ the gamer.  Game challenges should come in the form of story elements, puzzles, clues and riddles.  Game challenge elements should not involve game saving, turn-based play, checkpoints, character deaths, camera movement, controller button sequences, or anything dealing with the real-world physicality of the gaming system.  In other words, challenges should not be tied to something outside of the video game or outside of the story.  So, as a designer.. you should always ask yourself:  Does this challenge progress the game story forward?  If the answer is no, the challenge is a failure.  If yes, then the story becomes better by the challenge.

Button Sequences

For example, requiring the gamer to respond to a sequence of button presses in a very specific real-world time limit is not challenging.  This is frustrating.  This means the gamer needs to trial-and-error this section until they can make it through the timed sequence of buttons.  This is a failed and incorrectly used ‘challenge’ event.  This section does not challenge.  Instead, this sequence requires the gamer to ‘get through’ that section.  Note that ‘getting through’ is not a positive gaming aspect.  Worse, if this game section comes in a FPS game, but only occasionally (only to fight a boss), this is also incorrectly used.  If this play style is used regularly and consistently throughout the game, then the gamer knows that it’s coming.  If it’s used only at certain undisclosed points rarely, then the gamer has to fumble to realize what’s going on when there is no warning.

Death Sequences

Another common, but also incorrectly used gaming element is the character death sequence.  For some reason, recent games have promoted the use of character deaths as part of the challenge element.  So, there are sections of some games where the designers specifically designed the level so the gamer has to ‘die’ his way through the level.  These trial and error sequences, again, are incorrectly used and do not aid in moving the story or the game forward.  These also tend to promote deaths as a way to solve problems.  This is not appropriate.

Games should always promote the positive aspects of life and not promote death as a means to an end.  Worse, games like Too Human take the death sequence to an extreme and make the gamer wait through an excruciatingly long cinematic each time the character dies.  This, again, is an inappropriate use of a gaming element.  The game should be designed for the GAMER and not for the game designer.  Long death sequences such as what’s in Too Human overly emphasizes death.  This is, again, not appropriate.

Health Meters

Health meters are another common gaming element that are incorrectly used, or lack thereof.  Every game that allows the character to ‘die’ needs to have a visible health meter.  Games that use the Unreal engine do not have this.  Instead, when your character takes enough ‘damage’, the screen will become red with a halo.  The problem with this system (and this is also why its incorrectly used) is that the gamer doesn’t know how far from ‘death’ the character is.  This is not a challenge.  This is annoying and frustrating.  This leaves the gamer wondering just how much health they have. 

Game Saves

Again, story elements move the game forward.  Having the gamer stop and reload a game takes the gamer OUT of the game and forces them to restart from some arbitrary point.  Checkpoint games are particularly bad about this.  When checkpoints are the only way to save a game, this means the gamer must waste their real-world time through trial-and-error gaming.  This means, the user must wait through character deaths and then the subsequent reload of the level to restart at the checkpoint.  Again, this is not a challenge… it’s simply a waste of time.   When levels are designed such that the gamer’s character will die at least once to get through the level, the level has failed.  This forces a reload of a previous save.  This element, again, is misued as a challenge element.  Taking the gamer out of the game by forcing a reload ruins the game experience and disrupts the story you, as a developer, worked so hard to make cohesive.

Future of Gaming

Even as game developers are now stuck in the genre rut, they do have the power to break out of it.  They do have the means to produce games with more compelling and addictive content.  Instead of using old formulas that used to work, designers need to look for new ways to innovate,  monetize and bring video gamers into their game worlds and keep them there.  Games shouldn’t be viewed as a short term point A to B entity.  Games need to move to open ended and free exploration worlds.  Worlds that let the gamer play on the gamer’s terms.  Sure, there can be story elements that tie the game together like Fallout 3 and Oblivion.   In fact, I’d expect that.  But, these game threads should start and end inside the game as quests.  You can play them when you want to and you can leave them hanging if you don’t want to complete it.

Game elements like checkpoints, saves and button sequences need to be rethought.   Some of these elements can be successfully used, like checkpoints if implemented thoughtfully.  However, allowing the gamer to save anywhere lets the gamer save and start at their leisure.  But, that manual save process leaves it up to the gamer to remember to save.   For this reason, checkpoints when combined with save-anywhere is the best alternative when gaming.  After all, the game was supposed to be produced for the gamer.

Designers, creators and developers need to challenge the notion of what is a video game.  They need to use the 3D worlds in creative NEW ways.  Let the users explore the worlds on their terms, not on some dictated path and story.   Designers need to take a page from Bethesda’s book on free-roaming RPGs and expand on this.  Closed ended, path based games have limited playability and definitely no replay value.  Monetarily, developers need to understand that open ended construction based games let gamers take ownership of the game and make it their own.  Closed, narrow pathed games do not.

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