Catching up on my Steam backlog; there have been too many bundles, of varying degrees of humility.   Right now, it’s They Bleed Pixels; a pretty good combat-heavy retro platformer.

It has one mechanic that seemed really promising: once you collect enough purple orbs, either from pickups in the level or from defeating enemies (better combos = more orbs) you can deploy a checkpoint.

It’s a hard game, and its setups require a mix of reflexes and memorization to get through.  A frequent problem with such games is that checkpoints are too far apart, like every two or three setups; so you’ll die a bunch to the first setup, then you’ll squeak by and die to the second, and from then on you have to play through the first setup every time you attempt the second, until finally you reach the checkpoint.  Under They Bleed Pixels’s checkpoint scheme, you should only have to play past the first setup until you manage to beat both setups OR you get enough points in the first setup to earn a checkpoint, and then you can start from there to attempt the next.  And so on, through the level.

In practice, though, that’s not what happens.  Pickups and comboable enemies are far enough apart, or there’s not enough bonus for stylishly defeating enemies, that you basically only deploy checkpoints at where they’d be naturally.

All your attacks are on a single button: tap B to kick, forward + B to jab, etc.; I think you’ve got five or so distinct ground attacks, and I’ve died more than once because the wrong attack came out.  I think they could afford to split it up a little, but keyboard users might feel differently.

And the wall jump is a little weird.  Wall jumps are always a little weird, because pushing away from the wall feels like it should disengage you (as it does here) but you also want to push in the direction you’re jumping.  They solve the problem by having jump on a wall always go away from the wall for the first quarter-second or so, giving you time to change your directional input after you jump.  Super Metroid did the opposite: pushing away from a wall if you were close enough put you in a preparing-to-wall-jump animation, from which hitting the jump button would trigger a wall jump, even if you weren’t strictly touching the wall.  Not that you necessarily want to take jumping lessons from the Metroids; they had their own quirks.  That said, I’d be happier if TBP’s wall jump had a short grace period after you released.

But I’m enjoying myself!  I’m playing it in short bursts to prevent frustration; your last checkpoint is preserved even if you exit the game.

(though there certainly is frustration: that corridor I’m sliding down in the screenshot, for instance, is an exercise in dying repeatedly until you learn the precise hitbox of the buzzsaws; the proper technique is to let go of the wall and fall to the opposite wall without jumping, and do it early—it’s more forgiving on your head than your feet.)

Catching up on my Steam backlog; there have been too many bundles, of varying degrees of humility. Right now, it’s They Bleed Pixels; a pretty good combat-heavy retro platformer.

It has one mechanic that seemed really promising: once you collect enough purple orbs, either from pickups in the level or from defeating enemies (better combos = more orbs) you can deploy a checkpoint.

It’s a hard game, and its setups require a mix of reflexes and memorization to get through. A frequent problem with such games is that checkpoints are too far apart, like every two or three setups; so you’ll die a bunch to the first setup, then you’ll squeak by and die to the second, and from then on you have to play through the first setup every time you attempt the second, until finally you reach the checkpoint. Under They Bleed Pixels’s checkpoint scheme, you should only have to play past the first setup until you manage to beat both setups OR you get enough points in the first setup to earn a checkpoint, and then you can start from there to attempt the next. And so on, through the level.

In practice, though, that’s not what happens. Pickups and comboable enemies are far enough apart, or there’s not enough bonus for stylishly defeating enemies, that you basically only deploy checkpoints at where they’d be naturally.

All your attacks are on a single button: tap B to kick, forward + B to jab, etc.; I think you’ve got five or so distinct ground attacks, and I’ve died more than once because the wrong attack came out. I think they could afford to split it up a little, but keyboard users might feel differently.

And the wall jump is a little weird. Wall jumps are always a little weird, because pushing away from the wall feels like it should disengage you (as it does here) but you also want to push in the direction you’re jumping. They solve the problem by having jump on a wall always go away from the wall for the first quarter-second or so, giving you time to change your directional input after you jump. Super Metroid did the opposite: pushing away from a wall if you were close enough put you in a preparing-to-wall-jump animation, from which hitting the jump button would trigger a wall jump, even if you weren’t strictly touching the wall. Not that you necessarily want to take jumping lessons from the Metroids; they had their own quirks. That said, I’d be happier if TBP’s wall jump had a short grace period after you released.

But I’m enjoying myself! I’m playing it in short bursts to prevent frustration; your last checkpoint is preserved even if you exit the game.

(though there certainly is frustration: that corridor I’m sliding down in the screenshot, for instance, is an exercise in dying repeatedly until you learn the precise hitbox of the buzzsaws; the proper technique is to let go of the wall and fall to the opposite wall without jumping, and do it early—it’s more forgiving on your head than your feet.)

Kentucky Route Zero. At some point Steam snuck Act II onto my computer without telling me.  Screenshots crunched for tumblr don’t really do it justice; it’s all about the giant crisp flat polygons and single-pixel lines, to say nothing of the way the camera brings intriguing things through the foreground as you move around.

There’s an RPS interview with one of the game’s creators:


  Something that we stumbled across then was this interesting relationship equivalence between set design in theater, like stage theater, and video game work. We were making these little scenes in Unity, these little 3D scenes, and setting up props and stuff with a whole lot of consideration for the angle the player was going to be looking in from. They started to really look like theater sets. Then we started looking at modern American mid-century theater, and looking specifically at set designers. We found a few set designers that we really liked. That theatrical influence started to really transform the game, and moved it away from being what it was originally, which was a kind of exploratory platformer that was not challenge-oriented, but more about climbing around in the caves. That pushed it more towards this dramatic, more theatrical kind of game that was totally character-driven.


And then they almost totally depuzzlified it, leaving just exploring and conversation; and even there, conversation’s more about ‘what kind of person am I’ than advancing gameplay objectives.  It’s neat stuff, really well made.

(another one of those retro-styled games that cheats the tech to be way prettier than anything of the era could have been; but I’m not complaining.)

I do have a minor gripe about the walk speed?  But that’s more about my  own impatience.

Kentucky Route Zero. At some point Steam snuck Act II onto my computer without telling me. Screenshots crunched for tumblr don’t really do it justice; it’s all about the giant crisp flat polygons and single-pixel lines, to say nothing of the way the camera brings intriguing things through the foreground as you move around.

There’s an RPS interview with one of the game’s creators:

Something that we stumbled across then was this interesting relationship equivalence between set design in theater, like stage theater, and video game work. We were making these little scenes in Unity, these little 3D scenes, and setting up props and stuff with a whole lot of consideration for the angle the player was going to be looking in from. They started to really look like theater sets. Then we started looking at modern American mid-century theater, and looking specifically at set designers. We found a few set designers that we really liked. That theatrical influence started to really transform the game, and moved it away from being what it was originally, which was a kind of exploratory platformer that was not challenge-oriented, but more about climbing around in the caves. That pushed it more towards this dramatic, more theatrical kind of game that was totally character-driven.

And then they almost totally depuzzlified it, leaving just exploring and conversation; and even there, conversation’s more about ‘what kind of person am I’ than advancing gameplay objectives. It’s neat stuff, really well made.

(another one of those retro-styled games that cheats the tech to be way prettier than anything of the era could have been; but I’m not complaining.)

I do have a minor gripe about the walk speed? But that’s more about my own impatience.

Strider! They intentionally gave him that stance to show off how his feet stick to the ground, I bet.

mmos 2013

Blizzard’s Titan reboot, is, like they say, not surprising. MMOs are hard to make, and WoW is a tough act to follow.

A year ago GW2 vs. SWTOR vs. Tera seemed to mark the beginning of a new generation of MMOs.

Back then I was kind of discounting Tera’s combat; I thought GW2 had by far the strongest hand. I was (and still am) so tired of quests, whereas, compared to Diablo 3 or Vindictus or any real action game, Tera is still pretty sluggish.

But slightly punchier combat is the change that requires the least effort to cobble into your existing design. And if your players like it, it lets you get away with making fewer skills and weapons; so it really shouldn’t have been a surprise that, when I played the Neverwinter and Dragon’s Prophet betas, they had Tera’s locked camera and click-to-attack, but last-generation questing. Neverwinter has taken one further step, questwise: in addition to markers on the minimap telling you where to go—even WoW has those, these days—it puts a trail of sparkles along the ground that you can follow to your quest objectives.

Better combat is better, for sure. It’s what you do the most of, and god knows tab to target, hit button sequence on cooldown is stale. But I’d hoped people would also be experimenting more with the structural parts: quests, loot, when and why you go places to do things.

I’m being a little unfair to Tera here; after playing some other games and coming back to it, they did a good job with their animations & effects and so forth; the kill-loot-repeat cycle is pretty satisfying. It has the same weakness as God of War etc.—you’ve got a combo string where most of the damage is at the end, and so there’s a tiresome risk/reward around can you finish your combo before the enemy does its big attack, or do you play it safe and block; pushing your luck vs. the enemy’s clock. But waiting is boring!

Radiator Blog: Design reboot: Thief.

Robert Yang takes on Thief, in the spirit of Design Reboot.

I’m not a big Thief fan—sneaking is not my strong point, particularly without Metal Gear’s delightful radio plays to keep me going—but “here’s how I would do it!” is one of my favorite ways to hear people talk about games, I think because it says more about them and what they want out of games than about the game in question, which… the play’s the thing, really.

And They’re Off… | Zen Of Design

Damion Schubert on the console wars! This is mostly a “hooray, he’s back,” since he kind of went dark once he started working on SWTOR. I’d worried that his new corporate overlords would rein him in a little, since MMO forumgoers are an excitable lot, and are happy to read too much into anything anyone says, to say nothing of the lead designer. Which kind of turns out to be the case. Which is too bad; I mostly remember him for a series of really solid posts making the conservative case for “why fantasy? why combat? why classes and levels?” in MMOs. (some things have changed in the intervening half decade; some haven’t.)

Here he is on the last console launch vs. this one:

To be honest, what I saw from Sony when they launched was just unbelievable arrogance, undoubtedly coupled by them being the winners of the previous console generation. I didn’t think I was likely to see that kind of arrogance again, but I guess that was before Don Mattrick suggested that anyone who didn’t want to be connected 24/7 should just keep playing their 360 in a tone so serious that you can tell that they all sat around in a marketing meeting and agreed that was their talking point.

I remember how awful the triggers felt on the PS3 controller, but this post reminded me how terrible its battery was, combined with a recharging cable that wouldn’t reach to your sofa. Let’s hope they’ve learned from that, at least.

It’s kind of exciting, having a new console war; it gets the blood all fired up. If Microsoft hadn’t just so terribly bobbled the PR around (what may yet prove to be) a sensible DRM strategy, it might have been a boring repeat of last time around.

now playing

Did a bit of cleaning out my backlog of browser games. Some highlights: No-One Has to Die is a cute browser-based puzzle game by Stuart Madafiglio; its shallow branching story is neatly integrated into the puzzle. Ending is an abstracted puzzly roguelike by st33d; there’s intentionally no wait action, which might be the only way to keep it a puzzle? To me it just feels like arbitrary busywork replacing the wait, which isn’t awesome.

Less progress on my shooter backlog; I haven’t even got to Dishonored yet, to say nothing of Bioshock Infinite. But that hasn’t kept me from the commentary. Rab Florence says why are we so defensive all the time, that Infinite’s violence is more necessary & worthwhile than a hundred other games that weren’t being jumped all over last week (or was it the week before?); Tim Rogers says the violence gets in the way of having a nice look around, among half a dozen other things: the most interesting, to me, was when he went off on a whole tangent about how obviously they were trying for an American Ico but got scared off and just made Elizabeth invincible, but if they had, here’s how he would have done it. In great detail! I’m not sure why book or movie reviews that talk about the book or movie they wished they were reading or watching instead make me angry but when it comes to games it’s a useful and entertaining design exercise.

And I played a bit of Torchlight II; it was on sale, and they’ve just released their editing tools. I promised myself that before I make any more random dungeons I’ll look at how Torchlight does it, though I don’t think I’ll be doing any in the near future. They played up their traditional stats-and-skills system as a contrast to Diablo III’s streamlining, and it angries me up all over again. If only D3 hadn’t dropped the ball on the story and the auction house and maybe the servers! Torchlight’s pretty fun in all the moments when you aren’t spending skill and stat points; it’s a worthy Diabloalike. Bonus points for the pet alpaca.

more definitional bullshit

Raph Koster brings up the mechanics thing and makes Robert Yang really angry; he sees the whole “what is a game?” question as an move, perhaps unintentional, to keep people marginalized and step on their political message.

Andy Schatz, creator of Monaco, points out that indie games are all growed up: “It’s not so much that indie culture has changed, but the industry has moved in the direction that we’ve been trying to push in. Which is really cool. Like I said in the IGF intro, we’re not The Clash anymore. We’re Green Day.”

I’m with them, temperamentally if not professionally. I was raised on Mario and computer games of the old old school, and yet by the time I was out of college and actually making games, the world of games was different. AAA games desparately wanted to be legitimate, and that meant being like movies. Regardless of brow height: critics and scholars knew how to deal with story, and would fudge their way around the actual experience of play in order to extract a narrative. Back then “but is it art?” was the tiresome and useless definitional question used to generate more heat than light. And so people turned to pixel art and cheap tools like Flash and Game Maker and made games that were about all the things they thought had been lost: jumping on heads and random dungeons, strict tests of reflexes and serendipitous interactions between independent objects.

But it wasn’t that long ago! Maybe the indies have won, or been coöpted—and Minecraft’s certainly done a lot—but it still informs a lot of my thinking about games. To the extent that people are defensive about mechanics and gaminess, I suspect that’s where it comes from.

[simultaneously, it seems, we’re having a critcal backlash vs. bioshock infinite; i’m not sure if or where that fits in to anything.]

[dan cook has his own take on the history, which feels oddly focused on how games have been professionalized]

Holy crap! Ancient Workshop (James Brown) is making an origami editor. As he says in his blog, it started out as a game in which you’re made out of origami, and the editor got more and more honest and then at some point it just became the game.

I’m impressed; I can imagine taking so many shortcuts along the way to something you’d call an origami game. And the translucent paper is a nice touch.

starcrafting

Patrick Wyatt’s saga of programming Warcraft and Starcraft continues; he’s in fixing bugs and shipping territory:

Some bugs were related to the development process itself. The Protoss Carrier regularly lagged behind other units because it had its own way of doing … everything. At some point in time the code for the Carrier was branched from the main game code and had diverged beyond any hope of re-integration. Consequently any time a feature was added for other units, it had to be re-implemented for the Carrier. And any time a bug was fixed for other units, a similar bug would later be found in the Carrier code too, only more devious and difficult to fix.

It was worth it, probably? Carriers are the best!

But this decision bit them in the ass and kept on biting: keep the square grid from Warcraft 2, and just put diagonal art on it. They were always almost going to ship, so they could never afford to spend the time to do it right, and just slapped hacks and bandaids on until it finally worked well enough.

Which has got to be frustrating. Not only frustrating to live through, but…I’ve been there: you’re stuck with some tech that isn’t quite right, an engineering decision made for a different game that you have to keep working around in increasingly cumbersome ways. But you power through and release something mediocre, knowing that if you’d just done it right from the start the game would be better off for it. But this is Starcraft! Perhaps the best game ever of all time! The alternative might be even scarier: maybe code quality just doesn’t matter.

(except that it makes your lives more pleasant while you’re working on it, of course.)