Thursday, 29 October 2009

Playing the Role of Role Player.

Back around 2008 when a new Star Wars game was announced, I was ecstatic. I love the Star Wars universe. In October that year, when it was announced this new game would be an MMO I entirely lost my interest in it, while everyone seems as excited as before. I’ve been one of the few persons I know to not have the slightest interest, not even fleeting, in Aion, Warhammer Online, WoW, or whatever your MMO-flavor of the week is.

One could argue that role playing is just “not my thing”, and for a while I thought so myself, but then I realized that’s just not true. Role playing is defined as (“duh”, I know) taking on a character’s role. Pretending to be someone else, usually part of the universe you’re exploring in your book, party, game… etc. Now, while I admit dressing in cardboard and pretend-fighting someone is just not my thing, I like to immerse myself in the game I’m playing. When I transverse the Capital Wasteland, I am a wanderer trying to survive a post-apocalyptic world on his own. When I load up Assassin’s Creed, I take on the Creed’s mantle as my own. Hell, when I play TF2 I’m an Australian assassin (Not a crazed gunman dad…). I don’t even look at it as something abnormal or “extra”. To my mind that’s part of the game. That’s part of letting the game tell you a story properly. And I’m more than willing to let it do its work… If it lets me.

And that is my issue with MMORPGs, and even RPGs in general. Ironically, some characteristics inherent to the genre just keep me from immersing myself in the game. So many of the things that define an RPG are exactly the sort of things that yank me out of my game experience faster than being set on fire. In order to try and keep this from being filed under “ignorant hate speech”, allow me to try to elaborate.

It mostly comes down to leveling systems. I don’t think I remember a single RPG of any kind without one of these, and more often than not they’re an exercise in frustration more than anything. If there’s one thing that yanks me out of an experience faster than anything else is a random warning telling me “hey, you just grew up! Congratulations!”. There are very few things that feel quite as fake as having a random number define your skill.

I realize why these systems appeared though. Back in the D&D days, which to my knowledge were the cradle of this sort of thing, role playing was considerably more limited, particularly in its interactions. How would you fight a paper drawing? I think you’d quickly run out of friends if you were to fight them every time you had an encounter… And so the leveling system was created to add some form of strategy to fights that would otherwise be determined entirely on dice rolls and “who hit first”. But nowadays, do we really need that? Don’t we have perfectly good fighting systems that can create an interesting interactive experience? In today’s gaming world experience already IS a factor. Put a seasoned veteran in TF2, UT3, Counter Strike, CoD4, or any other FPS you care to pick, against a new comer and tell me experience isn’t a factor. We don’t need an arbitrary number telling us “Oh, you’re now better than that guy!”, “Why?”, “Because you’ve played longer basically.”, “But I’ve been on auto-pilot basically… I haven’t learnt jack squat.”, “Well, you’re still starting with an advantage because you’ve played longer!”.

It’s fake. It’s fake and to my mind it’s just bad game design. Even with games that emphasize “character building” is there a reason we need levels? Is there a reason we can’t just pick the abilities we want, and change them if we feel like after? The answer seems to be, because it’s easy. It’s easier for developers to slap a leveling system in and copy paste more of the same monsters with different models and variables for power than it is to create different and more challenging opponents. It’s easier to make all weapons work nearly the same with different visuals and base your performance on “which specialization did you pick” than it is to make weapons behave differently and force the player to learn the weapons.

This leads us to another mechanic that often tags along with the leveling: Loot. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against loot. We all love picking up a brand new machine gun that shoots rockets on fire, but can you make it at least somewhat credible? I reckon I’m no hunter, but I don’t think animals drop coins and entire armories when they cease to be… It seems pretty reasonable that you’d scavenge a dead outlaw for his weapons and pocket change, but I’m not entirely sure where a reanimated skeleton would hide a whole broad sword, and I shudder to think where in heaven’s name would a boar get (or hide) coins and ammo…

And finally there are quests. This is mostly a MMORPG thing but most quests immediately catapult me out of the game experience for their completely inappropriate nature. Why exactly am *I* the village’s only hope against this threat? I’m level 13, there’s a level 76 right over there! And they seem to be doing fine without me, regardless of how long I take. Also there are 3 other guys standing around this same NPC completing this same quest to save the village... Again… See, most developers forget the “multiplayer” part, and go on creating long and heavily romanticized stories that completely ignore the fact that you’re NOT the special one-of-kind savior they babble on about. You’re just another guy (or girl), in the increasingly bigger population of guys and girls doing the same you are.

There are a few more (albeit less relevant) things, but this article is already enormous as is so I leave it at that.

The bottom line here is that all these things that throughout the years have come to define the role-playing genre, a genre which should be defined by its openness to creativity and imagination, are the very things that keep my creativity from playing its part in the game. The game seems so afraid I won’t play my role properly that it defines all parameters for me, becoming more rigid than most other games. Consequently the whole thing becomes so fake that the game itself constantly reminds me I’m not really that character I made, I’m just playing a game pretending to be that character. The result is that these RPGs end up feeling less like role playing, and more like “role-playing a role-player”. Like pretending you’re pretending.

Friday, 23 October 2009

From wood toys to little girls and boys.

For those of you who missed it the newest L4D2 trailer was leaked today.

Now, I had something else lined up for this week, but given the fact that everybody and their dog with internet and even the most remote of connections to videogames have most likely seen this by now, and that it touches a very relevant issue in the gaming (and even movie) industry, I figured I’d strike while the iron is hot.

Here’s the thing, that clip is not even 3 minutes long, and it’s already better than entire movies I’ve seen and games I’ve played. In 3 minutes Valve managed to effectively create and convey more interesting, well-rounded, likable, and above all, believable characters than most videogames and movies do in their hours of extended cinematics.

Now, part of that is obviously due to technical issues like the amazing graphics, particularly the fantastically realistic and expressive facial expressions and features, and the excellent voice acting… Part of it is due to the fact Valve hires real writers to take care of things like “characterization” and “storytelling”, things most other companies brush off as menial and get someone to do in their lunch break… But above all is the fact that Valve as a company just gets it.

For instances, while the graphics are very impressive, it’s hard to argue something like the CryEngine 3 couldn’t pull equal, or even superior quality. Even something like the UT3 engine could potentially go toe-to-toe with the current Source engine. But here’s the thing: The source engine is just as good, or even more detailed, in the places that matter, like facial features that give character and expression to the survivors while remaining pretty good in the other, more “secondary-eye-candy” areas, like the folds in Nick’s jacket. Sure L4D2 may not have nearly as impressive vegetation as Crysis, but you won’t find a single Korean in that tropical island that can match the fluid expression in Coach’s face when Nick tells him that “maybe the helicopter is made of chocolate”. You don’t need Coach to say anything there. His face says everything.

But that’s still the “technical” part. The fundamental, the very core of what makes these characters so intrinsically “real”, far more real than even many movies ever accomplish, is the fact that they’re humans. No, I don’t mean their anatomy. I mean the fact that they behave like normal human beings would. They have consistent personalities, flaws, traits… They’re not generic one liner spewing bullet dispensing automatons, nor whiny hysterical self-pitying “angsty” overgrown teenagers. They’re survivors of a zombie apocalypse. They HAVE to be strong and brave, and consequently a bit cocky, to have endured and survived so far, but they are scared, they are human. Elli nearly looses it in that elevator when he sees a horde waiting for them. He looks like he's about to cry. He’s legitimately scared. And no matter who you are, you would be too in that situation. Nick lets out a smirk when he opens an abandoned cash register, presumably full of money, letting a bit of greed shine through. Coach indulges himself to a chocolate bar while he satirizes the “safety protocol” that obviously did nothing for most people, and even though Rochelle seems tough enough to kick Lara Croft’s ass up and down the zombie-infested street, she nearly curls up into a ball of denial and disbelief when they realize rescue isn’t coming. She’s tough, but terrified. They all are. It’s human nature.

If you’re having trouble seeing my point, think about Pinocchio. Yes, the children’s story. Remember how he’s not just turned into a little boy, he has to grow into one? He starts off as an animated piece of wood with all the character of an empty barrel, runs off, does good and bad. He experiences things that shape the way he grows as a character. By the end of the story, even before the fairy turns him into meat and bones, though he’s made of wood he’s more “real” than any other character presented in that story. That is a perfect, 126 years old analogy to proper characterization. Characters need to act human before they look human. You can’t just tack on skin to a robot and expect them to feel real.

And that’s the bottom line. If you want your story to mean something, you need people to relate to your characters. And if you want that to happen, you need your characters to be real and believable in more than just physics, you need to turn them into real people. More than their body, you need their personality to feel like it’s made of real skin, and not wood.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

I.W. potentially ruins Modern Warfare 2's online before release. - Updated

Earlier today a webcast from that involved an interview with an IW employee, community manager Rob Bowling, revealed some rather bizarre (at very least) new information about Modern Warfare 2's online gameplay. In short, and to quote Zips, Site Director from CS Nation:

  • IW has control of the game
  • IWnet servers will host multiplayer
  • DLC will be a charged item for PC
  • No dedicated servers
  • Matchmaking system used to play with similarly ranked players
  • VAC instead of PB
  • Semi-capable password servers
  • Semi-capable ad-hoc servers
  • Competitive play is dead
  • MW2 mods would not be possible
  • Full integration into Steam

In other words, it's removing control away from players under the guise of "making it simpler".

Now, I have nothing against IW-Hosted servers as an option, and making it more accessible to new players, or people without the money for a dedicated server, seems like a pretty good idea. The gaping hole of this logic comes when they downright force us to give up dedicated servers, which is basically destroying what makes online great on the PC.

Despite what the I.W. employee claims, online gameplay on PC has always been superior due to the level of customization and control it allows. You buy your own servers, you make your own rules and you shape your own content. Your server basically becomes your "home". You ban who you want, you do what you want, and whomever doesn't like it can stay out. None of this is possible once you put it all under a company's wing. Regardless of what anyone says, being FORCED to play it on their servers means that, ultimately, it's their rules, and whatever they decide goes, because you CAN'T just leave and play on your own server. What if tomorrow Infinity Ward decides having the word "gay" in your name is not allowed? It's not like this kind of thing never happened before. Or that maybe swearing is not allowed.

Ultimately, this is not about having "LOLDICKGAYFAG!" as your user name, but over the fact that you no longer own the online portion of your game. You loan it. And you're subject to the whims and machinations of whomever at I.W..

Forced Matchmaking is yet another colossal dickmove... While it's nice to have the option to "quick join" a game, I think we all know by now how fun FORCED Matchmaking is (and how well it works).

These are all things that could potentially be great news if they were all added as options, but making them mandatory over the "tried and true" formula feels dictatorial and coercive at best, and self-destructive at worse.

Let's hope this is just a misinformed employee, and that we will get our dedicated servers and full control of our own game, at least as an option.

More on this as it develops.

Update - 20/10/09: Apparently Robert "fourzerotwo" Bowling remains resolute that this is, in fact, the best option for PC gamers and he's showing little signs of backing down on his blog.

I get the feeling this won't end here.

Source: The Escapist

Monday, 12 October 2009

Why Rambo does not wear slippers.

Anyone who has played action games in the last decade at least might have noticed a tendency for these games to split into two major branches, two gravitational poles of the genre towards which titles keep moving into.

In one corner, we have the games in which the main character is a super powered behemoth, trudging relentlessly onwards through waves of “baddies”, spouting “bad-ass” one liners with a sarcastic smile on their face while they soak bullets and unleash hell on their enemies with either the kind of super power that would make Marvel writers gasp in amazement or the weapons stockpile that would make the pentagon look like an amateur firework shop. We’ll call these the “killers”, because the focal experience of these games is in the cathartic destructive potential of your individual. In other words, the fun here, the core of the experience in these games, comes from exploring the potential of your power on the scary looking but ultimately helpless waves of pawns the game throws at you. It’s a call to our primal urges of brute force, a way to act like an unstoppable vengeful god.

In the other corner, we have games in which the main character is usually a more realistically fragile being which, although still able to survive more than real humans, can only take so much before perishing, generally pitted against bigger or stronger (or both) forces where the player has to explore his intellect to defeat his opponents. We’ll call these “survivals”, because in this case the core of the experience is not to kill your enemies specifically, but to outlive them. Of course, this usually means you’ll have to kill them, but mostly because not doing so would lower your own chances of survival. While the initial difference for the “untrained eye” might not be more noticeable than a choice between “blast the door down and shoot everyone till they die twice” or “turns the lights off, sneak in through the window and knife everyone before they find the light switch”, the difference in feelings, and consequently experience, these different games evoke is considerable.

Which isn’t to say either is inferior to the other, on the contrary, both are complementary. Despite what some fans will have you believe, there IS room in this world for the “all out killer action!” and the “sneaky tactical survival game!”. The real issue here is not when developers pick one of these “sub-genres”, but when they decide to pick both. More is not always better, and a more concentrated, polished and focused experience, generally outweighs a broader but more diluted one. Let’s take two opposite games that focus a lot on a similar mechanic: Prototype and Assassin’s Creed.

Two games I like. Regardless of other extensive differences, both games focus a lot in parkour/free running, both follow the “one person against the world/fight the conspiracy” theme, but they both go about it in very different ways. In Prototype you’re a superpowered mutant to whom an entire army is little more than a nuisance, while in Assassin’s Creed you’re an assassin that can’t take a lot of punishment before going down (at least at first). A lot of criticism can be leveled with both of these games, but there’s one that’s more resounding than the others in both cases, which is when they try to be each other. Assassin’s Creed spends almost the entire game teaching you to run, hide, be sneaky, and only fight when absolutely necessary… Only to do a complete 180 and spend its final mission/s pitting you against entire armies with nowhere to run and no use for all the stealthy assassination techniques you spent the entirety of the game perfecting. Inversely, Prototype starts you off as an unstoppable monster full of different ways to handle any problem that might arise, fighting soldiers with particularly poor detective skills (apparently in that Manhattan it’s perfectly normal for people to crash-land a 100 ft fall and walk it off) and about half way through it decides to plop down some insufferable “infection scanners” everywhere, that can instantly detect you even if you’re doing nothing wrong or disguised as a soldier, and quickly detach hunter-gunship squads for any given reason to promptly shower you with missiles (which are considerably more effective against you than normal bullets), pretty much forcing you through the same motions (usually involving hijacking one of the gunships) and cutting down your own creative potential.

In both cases the attempt to “broaden” the original experience into something it’s not, only ended up detracting from the actual game. Sure, I like the option of getting in a brawl in a stealth-based game, or fighting and running for my life in a more gung-ho action game, but I want to do it when I feel like it. When the game forces me to do it, either by making them a final mission in AC’s case or throwing those “scanners” down everywhere in Prototype’s case, then it becomes a disconnected chore more than an alternative. This is the same reason why the same people who love stealth games, can (and usually do) also hate “forced stealth sections” in games, which are almost universally disliked by gamers. Because they’re a “forced” disconnect with the rest of the game.

So the question becomes: Can both sub-genres mix?

I know better than to use the word “impossible”, instead I’ll use the word “improbable”. Why? It’s certainly not technical limitations. It is, in fact, due to the emotions that serve as foundation for the experience in either types of game not mixing very well. Could there ever be such a thing as an “overpowered underdog”? How can you make a user feel threatened, legitimately worried about their own life if they’re also supposed to feel stronger, faster and overall better than their opponents?

I suppose the bottom line here is, it’s better to focus on what you want to do, and do it right, than to try and do everything, which almost always turns bad. And that’s why Rambo doesn’t wear slippers… Because he needs his boots to step on his enemies.

Are you all trying for a Section 8!?

And today, October 12th, ironically the day the U.S. Navy was formed, 2009, not the year the U.S. Navy was formed, Section 8 is born.

And you're probably asking yourself "Wait... What?", so it's only justified that I start with the introductions:

Section 8?

The term Section 8 comes from the U.S. Military, and it's a form of discharge given to people deemed mentally unfit (i.e.:"too crazy") to perform their duties. The official "Section 8" no longer exists though, but pop culture saw fit to immortalize the expression as an eternal monument to insanity. In other words, if someone uses the expression "Section 8" nowadays, it's usually to point out someone else is fucking crazy.

So... Why section 8? Are you crazy? Are you in the Military?

I'm not, nor have I ever been, in the military, no. I'm not even American. As mentioned above, I chose the name Section 8 because nowadays it implies someone is going bat shit insane, which is what I feel like regarding the assorted stuff I'm going to post about here. I also have a very close and convoluted relationship with insanity, so when I thought of the name it was a no-brainer. Am I crazy? You tell me.

Ok, but what is this about?


Ok, allow me to expand:
It's most likely imperceptive at the time I'm writing this what this place is about. Between the completely standard blog template and the lack of posts, this could be a blog entirely about sweaters for all you know... Hopefully it'll be a lot clearer in the near future. This is going to be mostly about games, usually videogames to be precise. About game design, history, culture, conception, problems, etc. Which isn't to say I won't talk about anything else... Specially remarkably stupid events I feel the need to gripe about. Or something funny...

Ultimately this will be about whatever the hell I want... It's my blog, and like every other self-entitled opinionated jerk with a messiah complex on the internet, I'll write about whatever I damn please. But expect games to be a big part of it, mostly because I love games.

And who are you?
Call me Ishmae-... Actually don't. You can call me Caliostro. No, no relationship to "Cagliostro", which I'm mentioning here due to the alarming number of times I've been asked online if I simply misspelled the name. It's appalling that people are so unnused to the concept of originality these days that they'll try to find a reference to something in anything, no matter how obscure... But let's save it for the posts.

Caliostro is the name of a character I created partially based on myself (author insertion personas! woohoo!) , but never actually developed. After growing very attached to the name I took it for myself and the rest is history. I'm a 22 (currently) year old Psychology student, former Architecture student, who loves videogames ("really...?"), art, music, good comedy, and figuring out what makes things tick. It's been my life's hobby really, deconstructing and reconstructing.

Well, I guess that about does it for things you need (or even remotely want) to know at this point. So... This is Cali, signing off.