Random Exploration …

December 21, 2014

I’ve been playing a lot of console games lately. I finished Lord of the Rings: The Third Age a little while ago, then moved on to Suikoden III, and then decided to finally finish Suikoden V, and now am playing Shadow Hearts: Covenant. And one thing has bugged me about all of them: random encounters. Or, rather, the combination of random encounters and an underlying motivation to explore. Or, even more rather, the combination of random encounters, an underlying motivation to explore, and a dungeon/world design that makes it far too easy to get lost.

So, what’s the beef? Well, most console games — and some others, like Wizardry 8 — build their experience-gaining model on random encounters, which are enemies that you encounter at random just walking around. They have no real connection to the plot and are just there to be things for you to fight and get experience and so get levels. Games like Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale and Knights of the Old Republic made these fixed, so in theory there’s a set amount of experience in the game. This means that in those games, once you clear out an area that area’s clear and you won’t have to fight anything else in that area unless the plot demands that new monsters move in.

But with random encounters, no area is ever clear. You could wander over the same area a million times fighting every step of the way and you’ll still have to fight things. Sometimes they scale with your level, and sometimes they don’t. But, ultimately, no matter where you go, you’re fighting things.

Which wouldn’t be that big a problem except that every fight takes some resources, generally. You use spells against them, or you lose hitpoints that require potions or spells to restore, or you use skills and lose skill points or whatever. And so when all you want to do is get to the end boss and move on, you have to fight through these things and lose resources that you might need for that boss fight. Which means that you have to stock up for more than the boss fight, but for the time and resources you’ll spend getting to him. And if they’re so easy that you won’t use resources, they’re just annoying (Oh, look, more evil broccoli. Put it on auto, wait for the battle to end, note that my XP went up by 1 (only 100,000 more to go!), move on to the next fight).

Well, okay, that’s not that bad. But now add in encouragement to actually explore every corner of every single area that you happen to be in. LotR: TTA had it so that you couldn’t buy any items at all, so you wanted to find every treasure chest … oh, and if you want perfect completion you have to do all the sidequests that required exploration. S3 and S5 let you buy items, but a lot of unique items were hidden in chests and in separate areas, as well as you sometimes running into recruitable characters in them. SH: C had all the same things as S3 and S5, and also added encounters with the Ring Spirit (okay, okay, Ring Soul! Ring Soul!) that are funny and give you things as well. So you want to explore every single corner to get all the encounters and things you want or need to. Fighting all the way, because again random encounters keep happening no matter how many times you run down the same corridor. Using resources all the way as well.

Which leads to the last addition: getting lost. So, you’re trying to find every corner, and then you get, well, lost. You’re studying the puzzles, looking for the right switches to flip, or whatever and you’re stuck. So you desperately run around trying to find some exit that you missed the first time. And while you’re trying to see if that path is really there or is one you’ve already walked down … you hit a random encounter. Which takes resources. Heaven help you if you’re understocked and get lost, because you have to worry that you’re going to run out of powers/potions before the boss … where you’ll actually really need them.

S5 was TERRIBLE for this. In one area, you’re in a forest that not only has increased random encounters, but the paths are obscured so you can’t actually tell where they are. So I got completely lost because I simply couldn’t see the path … and I play on an old Amiga monitor which is a heck of a lot sharper than your average CRT TV, which is what was the standard when that game came out. And so I kept thinking “Let me see if that’s … dang, another fight”;. In another area, I didn’t realize that I had to go through the other gate, and so got completely lost, having to save a few times and almost running out of healing potions because of the random encounters … and you couldn’t buy any other things to replace them. Or at least I couldn’t. The others are generally not as bad, but I got lost badly in every one of them except S3.

About the only good thing about that is that if you do get lost and have to fight over and over and over again just to find the path, at least you generally get to level up without having to officially grind.

Yeah, I understand that we need some challenge in the game and some way to gain levels. It just seems that there ought to be a less potentially frustrating way. Then again, those four games are games that I’ve managed to finish, except for SH: C. So maybe nothing needs to change at all

When Change Doesn’t Do You Good …

December 20, 2014

So, I’ve been playing Suikoden V for a while, and for the first time, I think, I’ve played it pretty much right after playing Suikoden III (skipping the reportedly not very good Suikoden IV), and I was struck by one thing: how much better S3 is compared to S5.

Graphically, S5 might be better. The menus, though, aren’t. (Hint to UI designers: technically powerful does not always equate to useful or pretty.) But ultimately, the problem is that they made changes to the gameplay and mechanisms that are annoying and don’t seem to add much. They replaced the “point-and-click” movement to certain areas in S3 with a return to the standard “Wander around on the world map” idea, and that leads to me getting horribly lost (right now, I can’t remember where to go to find Sable and as far as I know the game won’t tell me). Add in that they added uncrossable rivers but then added a boat that takes you there by actually wandering down or up the river in an uninterruptable trip — you only get an encounter once, and it’s scripted — and it’s just, well, annoying.

But it doesn’t stop there. Now instead of picking up runes — the main sources of magic for the game — you get dropped pieces that you can assemble. And all magic is driven by the same skill, whereas each of the runes had its own skill in S3, meaning that you could have magicians who were good with certain runes but not others, adding to the strategy of selecting characters (and with 108 characters, that’s useful). Recruitment is harder. Battles have changed to a more free-flowing battle — you can and have to move everywhere — but you have a silly “rock-paper-scissors”; resolution with weaknesses, compared to S3 where the composition of the party mattered more. It’s also moved to real-time instead of turn-based, which can make it really annoying when you have to deal with a land and sea battle at the same time. The story isn’t as dramatic, but it is good and funny … but the main character has no personality, unlike S3 who had three main characters with distinct and interesting personalities.

Okay, so after that rant, let’s start to get towards the point: the sequel changed, at least in part because someone decided it had to. S3 was a popular game, S4 was not as highly regarded, and S5 could have gained by sticking with that. But there’s this odd impression that RPGs cannot simply take the old gameplay, tweak it a bit to fix the problems, and then add a new and interesting story to it and be a good game. Which is odd in a world where EA makes tons of money effectively selling roster updates with minor tweaks every year.

This isn’t the only RPG to do it. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2: Sith Lords did the same thing. It added the prestige classes and a new type of card game and lightsaber stances and some other goodies and then couldn’t actually finish the game. I’d have rathered they finish the game and leave some of that out, to be honest. And Final Fantasy X-2 changed the combat system from Final Fantasy X so that I couldn’t play Final Fantasy X-2, despite being able to do combat okay in FFX. The shift that started in X-Men: Legends 2 towards having boss fights with special things having to happen — like having to, say, toss bombs back at a boss — as opposed to a straight fight reached its culmination in the insanely complex specialties of Marvel Ultimate Alliance, where there was no boss that you could just hit until they go away (minor underlings, yes. Bosses, no).

Now, some games do manage to do this well. Icewind Dale and Icewind Dale 2, based on D&D, managed to add a new story with some minor tweaks. But the best in my opinion was Persona 3 to Persona 4. There were some differences that were annoying where it tried to be too cute. But for the most part those were just tweaks, aimed at making it more interesting. Their big additions were fixing it so that you could control all party members directly — much desired in Persona 3 — and incorporating the Margaret Social Link into the already existing fusion quests. They also combined the physical damage into one category from three and forced the MC to use the same weapon (which was annoying). They made it harder by not allowing returning to the entrance to restore SP, but added a Social Link to restore SP in exchange for money and S-link brownie points. So they didn’t revamp the system but instead simply tweaked it in good and not so good ways.

Instead, the designers spent time making a new and interesting story, linking things from the previous game in, adding interesting jokes and character moments, and generally worked on making the story work. Whether they really succeeded or not — I found the S-links inferior to those of P3, in part for those reasons — they basically said: what we’re going to do is tweak the game based on complaints and add all the story-type stuff that you wanted and liked in P3.

And this, I think, is what RPGs should aim for. It isn’t the gameplay that sells an RPG; it’s the story. So if you make an RPG with the exact same gameplay but a new and interesting story, it should do well. Sure, some people might grumble, but those people aren’t actually interested in an RPG anyway. They’re interested in your gameplay, and you can then go off and make a game with the tweaks in gameplay to make them happy. But most people who really want to play RPGs will be more than happy with a game that provides them the gameplay they got used to but adds in a new and epic story and world to play around in.

Unfortunately, the vocal reviewers and posters will not be them. They’ll be the ones arguing that the gameplay has gotten stale. But the instant you hear that, you know that they’ve missed the point of an RPG. If you notice the gameplay, either you have amazing gameplay — and good on ya for that! — or you don’t have an engaging story. If you have an engaging story, no one should notice stale gameplay … or the gameplay at all.

For an RPG, the gameplay is the means to an end. Game designers have to stop treating it like an end in itself

Ratings and Retailers and Regulations, Oh My.

December 19, 2014

Just this week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a California law — a law that would have made it illegal for retailers to sell video games rated for certain ages to children who were below that age — is unconstitutional because it violates the free speech rights of video game producers.

So, let’s just summarize this:

1)There’s already a voluntary rating system in place for video games (you can see examples of them on this site and on the boxes of most video games).
2)This rating system gives age ranges for what ages this game is appropriate for, from E (everyone) to AO (adults only).
3)California wanted to make that formal and force retailers to follow those guidelines in selling games.
4)The U.S. Supreme Court said that that violated free speech.

Now, they might have a point if this sort of rating system had never existed in anything else. But we all know that you can’t go into an R rated movie if you’re underage. I’m not sure if those standards are applied to DVD sales and rentals — I’m now far, far too old to be asked how old I am when buying these things — but I’d be amazed if there wasn’t a jurisdiction somewhere that imposed it. So while the video game producers liked to claim that they were just being treated like everyone else, they actually aren’t really being treated like movies. So this has been done in the past, and even is done for DVDs and video games that are considered to be “adult” for containing sex instead of violence. So, how is this sort of restriction suddenly against free speech?

The problem is that free speech has never guaranteed that there won’t be any restrictions on your audience. A play or film or act that’s likely to be too explicit will have an age restriction slapped on its audience. For the most part, it’s mostly done for sexual content, but the video game ratings include that. And the ratings themselves are pretty close to movie ratings and, at least in theatres, that is tightly restricted. You can indeed restrict who the audience for free speech is.

Unfortunately, to oppose the law video game producers pretty much had to appeal to something like the right to free speech to be taken seriously. So, then, we can ask: should they have opposed this law?

The big issue to me is that it seems that this law provides exactly what the voluntary ratings were supposed to provide: choice for parents to ensure that their children aren’t playing games that they don’t think they should be playing. Without this law, parents don’t get to choose if their children play these games because their children can go and buy it themselves. Presuming that the law didn’t restrict parents from buying these games for their underage children, with the law if a child under the recommended age wants to play the game they have to get their parents — or someone else who is over the recommended age — to buy it for them. This means that if little Johnny wants to get the latest Grand Theft Auto, he’s got to go to his parents and convince them that it’s okay for him to play the game. And that’s really what we want: parents getting involved in the decisions of what games little Johnny should be playing.

The video game industry would indeed lose some sales if this law went into force. But it would only lose sales from children who are below their recommended age who can’t convince their parents to buy the game for them anyway. And if the video game industry is going to recommend an age range for a game, it just doesn’t seem right for them to be worried about losing sales from people outside of that range. That just seems mercenary, somehow.

Computer of Hats …

December 18, 2014

So, Portal 2 came out and gave you the ability to buy extra clothing items through the Valve store. People were incensed. This made Shamus Young over at Twenty-Sided Tale incensed, and he wondered why people were so upset by DLC that he claimed “… is less offensive and more consumer-friendly than anything that came before it.”

I disagreed with that, actually. I didn’t find it all that consumer-friendly, and wondered why. The vast number of comments made Shamus himself accept that maybe it isn’t as clear an issue as he thinks. But it got me thinking, and while I don’t support the level of hatred that it got I think there are reasons here why this sort of things irritates people, perhaps even more than DLC that advertises itself in game or dramatically changes the game itself.

First, Day 1 DLC is always going to be an issue. Seriously, if you release anything — no matter how trivial — as being separately for sale on the same day as the game is released, people are going to rightly wonder why that wasn’t just put in the game if it could be created and tested fully with the game in time to release it. Sure, there may be economic factors that dictate separating them out like that, but it’s really hard to think of any. After all, it would still have to be the original team working on this, and so you’d still be paying them, and they’d still be working with the same deadlines, right? I guess if at some level the group making this DLC was an arm’s length group, say a group that makes items or levels for all games and not just this one, it might make sense … but that’s a level of organizational detail that we just aren’t going to know (or want to know). For anything big, it should have taken longer and at least been out a month or two after; for anything small, it probably won’t earn enough to make it worthwhile.

Now, on pondering this, there’s a contradiction here: collector’s editions. Particularly for MMOs, collector’s editions provide some new in-game goodies that are purely in-game, and they usually cost a little bit more. And yet this doesn’t seem to have the same negative connotation as this DLC did, at least for me. But both are Day 1, and it could be argued that they do the same things in the same way, but one is purchaseable separately and one is in a limited edition version that costs more. What’s the difference?

I think origin is the difference. I remember collectors editions when they generally gave you OUT OF GAME bonuses, like figurines, maps, and soundtracks. I’ve pre-ordered games just to get soundtracks (the latest Silent Hill being a prime example). So the original connotation is not that collector’s editions are extra in-game content, but that they are extra out-of-game content; they are, in fact, collector’s items that you can collect or enjoy.

MMOs like City of Heroes can piggyback onto this impression, even if their bonuses are actually all in-game. You FEEL like you’re getting something “extra”, that’s worth the extra money, but something that isn’t just something that should have been in the game already — even if it should be. Valve’s “hats” don’t even pretend to be anything other than an in-game addition at Day 1, and as such we can nakedly see that this is just charging us extra for things that they already made for the game. This, then, triggers the “Day 1 DLC” anger.

Second … small things annoy me more than big things. Unless you’re a game like “The Sims”, clothing options don’t impact gameplay or, really, add that much to the game. It doesn’t seem to be worth taking the time to create them, let alone creating them just to charge a little extra for them for those who might buy it. And, historically, most of these sorts of items were never sold separately, but were instead bundled with more expansive expansions. So, if you bought an expansion to a game like Icewind Dale, you’d get new quests as well as a bunch of new items and clothing options. It’s odd to see these things as being valuable enough to try to sell, and the low price — something like $5 — seems to reflect that. So, why are they bothering? Either stick it in the game from the start or add it as part of a more substantial addition. If it takes a lot of time to do these things, then wait and add things that do indeed change the game significantly for the better, and if it doesn’t then, again, take more time to do more significant changes and toss these in as well.

Of course, these are just my own personal opinions, and others may disagree. But this is just one perspective on why this might have generated such much hostilty even if some people can’t see why it would.

Comparative Review: MvC3 vs MKvDCU vs XM:ND

December 17, 2014

So, I recently picked up a PS3, and one of the games I bought with the system to give me something to play was Marvel vs Capcom 3. I also grabbed Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe because that was one of the games that I really regretted not being able to play. And I’ve played them both a bit.

Now, when it comes to reviewing fighting games, I shouldn’t be the one to review them. This is for two reasons:

1) I’m not all that great at fighting games, and so always play them on easy, meaning that you aren’t going to get any comment on how good the AI is.

2)I like stories, and so the reason I buy and play them is to get through their stories, which may not be what most fighting game fans are looking for.

That being said, I can do what I’m calling “Comparative Review”, where I pick out categories and rate the games relative to each other on the things that I subjectively think are important and how they feel to me. I’m not going to pretend to be objective here, although there’s some objectivity involved. And I’m not going to claim that, at the end of this comparative review, fighting game fans will know what game they should buy or play. But hopefully it’ll be interesting.

For this one, I’d like to compare superhero-oriented fighting games, and so, the three games are:

Marvel vs Capcom 3, Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe, and an old PS2 game, X-Men: The Next Dimension.

So, let’s get started…


MvC3: The graphics are flat panel drawings, like pretty much all Street Fight or Capcom fighting games. And they aren’t impressive. In any way. They’re dull and boring. The artwork for the characters isn’t all that great either; I found myself wishing, for example, for all the different costumes and images of Wolverine that you’d find in other games, since here he looked a bit off. That being said, it is in high definition and so looks nicely sharp; it’s just that there’s not much for it to look sharp about.

MKvDCU: As befits Mortal Kombat, it’s done in a fairly realistic, 3-D style. The characters look good, and the environments impressive at times. The backgrounds are interesting and detailed. Yeah, it’s pretty.

XM:ND: This was also done in a 3-D style. And it’s done pretty well. The characters look interesting, but the 3-D work can look odd at the end of fight mocking. The backgrounds, though, are done well.

2) XM:ND
3) MvC3


MvC3: The end-of-fight cutscenes are the typical still picture with a comment underneath it. Ho-hum, nothing to see here.

MKvDCU: There aren’t really any cutscenes in the arcade mode, other than moving up the “ladder”. I’ll leave the story mode cutscenes to the story section. Not much to see here.

XM:ND: There’s not much here either … except that in arcade mode you stay in one location for a while, and they have a cutscene when you change locations officially, which is really nice.

1) XM:ND
2) MvC3


MvC3: Characters get their own lead-ins and victory comments voiced, as well as their special moves. A nice touch is that there are special voiceovers when certain characters meet — like, say, Wolverine and Phoenix — but this is minimized by the mechanic of having three fighters aside that tag in and out — see, because it’s the THIRD game — and only if they happen to align with each other at the beginning does the line kick off. The voice acting does a decent job.

MKvDCU: Few moves are voiced; it’s overall fairly silent. Arcade mode doesn’t seem to have intro and exit voiceovers. The story mode, however, has tons of voiceovers, which are reasonably good and done reasonably well, although Batman’s voice is a bit of a disappointment (although it does grow on you a bit).

XM:ND: It’s about the same in arcade mode as MvC3, although it doesn’t seem to have special voiceovers for critical meetings. The story mode obviously has more voiceovers and acting.

2) XM:ND
3) MvC3


MvC3: It has a fair number of moves, and the moves are reasonably easy to pull off, most of the time, for at least a lot of the characters.

MKvDCU: There are a decent number of moves, but they’re harder to pull off than those in MvC3.

XM:ND: A decent number of moves, including different ones for each level of charge. Varies on how easy they are to pull off.

Ranking :
(but they’re all really, really close).


MvC3: There’s kinda a story here in the arcade mode. It’s terrible. And you can’t even make your own story from the arcade combinations because the combinations of combatants make no sense. Yeah.

MkvDCU: The story mode proceeds from both sides — like MvC3 SHOULD have done — and is interesting. The cutscenes after each section really spell it out so that you don’t really have to think about it in the combats. Quite well done.

XM:ND: The story is good, and the fights adapt to the part of the story you’re in. There are cutscenes that work reasonably well. Overall, done well.

Ranking :
1553) (okay, okay, 3) MvC3.

So, the scores will reflect the totals of their RANKINGS, and so the lower it is, the better it ranked throughout the review.


MvC: 3 + 2 + 3 + 1 + 3 = 2.40 (average)

MKvDCU: 1 + 3 + 1 + 3 + 1 = 1.80(average)

XM:ND: 2 + 1 + 2 + 2 + 2 = 1.80 (average)

So, based on this comparative review, you get XM:ND = MKvDCU > MvC3, mostly because XM: ND wasn’t the worst in any category (it would have been the worst in graphics if MvC3 hadn’t been so poor in its art) and took the cutscenes category while MKvDCU didn’t bother to show up.

So, if you’re looking for a decent fighting game, you could do worse than loading up the old PS2 and playing XM: ND again. Specifically, you could try to play MvC3. MKvDCU, however, is certainly worth playing if you like superheroes and fighting games.

For Capcom’s sake, I hope the latest Street Fighter game did a better job. MvC3 strikes me as an afterthought, and I hope that it was an afterthought to that game.

The specific breakdown, then, is that MvC3 finished last — and thus, behind a PS2 game — in three categories ( Graphics, Story and Sound/Voicework) while taking the very close Moves category and finishing second to XM: ND in the Cutscenes category that, as already stated, MKvDCU didn’t even bother to complete in. MKvDCU finished last in two categories (Cutscenes and the really close, too close to call, Moves category) while taking three categories (Sound/Voicework, Graphics and Story). XM: ND was better than at least one of the next gen games in all categories, and took the Cutscenes category.

Sometimes, new isn’t always better.

The Outsider Test: Treat Your Religion Like You Treat Others

December 16, 2014

So, in in keeping with my acceptance of the atheist challenge on sophisticated atheist philosophy, I picked up John W. Loftus’ “The Outsider Test for Faith”, as recommended by Jerry Coyne. I read it today, and plan to comment on a number of things over the next little while on it. Today, I’m going to start with Loftus’ central conceit: the idea that, at its heart, all he is doing is asking those who are religious to treat their own religion the same way they treat others.

Essentially, Loftus claims that people who are religious and who believe that there is only one True religion — theirs — reject all other religions on the basis of his view of reasonable skepticism, which I’ll get into more later. But suffice it to say that he claims that for the most part we all reject other religions because we don’t think that they have sufficient evidence for their claims and treat them generally skeptically. However, he says this in Chapter 4, on page 76 in the paperback edition:

Most believers argue that other religions are false simply because they take it for granted that theirs is the one true faith. … They do this based on their faith. Given that they believe the tenets of their faith are true, those other religions must therefore be false. … But this method is faulty to the core. It’s begging the question. It first presumes what they believe based on what they were raised to believe. When they argue in this fashion it is nothing short of special pleading on behalf of their own culturally adopted religious faith. What they need to show is that their own faith can be justified.

But on the very next page, he reiterates what the OTF (Outsider Test for Faith) is supposed to represent:

The OTF is simply a challenge to examine one’s adopted religious faith … with the same level of reasonable skepticism believers already use when examining the other religious faiths they reject.

Except, he already conceded what we all already knew: religious believers don’t examine other religious faiths with that level of skepticism. Instead, they simply note that it is not their religious belief and conflicts with their religious belief, and so it must be false. So, Loftus is definitively not simply asking religious believers to treat all religious faiths the same, including their own. He is definitively positing a specific way one ought to approach religious beliefs, even though most people don’t actually do that. This has two major consequences for him:

1) Throughout the book, Loftus defends the applicability or reasonability of the test by appealing to the idea that he is merely asking religious believers to evaluate their own religion the same way they evaluate other religions. He does this over and over and over and over. But since that isn’t what religious believers do, all of those defenses fail. Loftus may want religious believers to do that, and think it’s the only rational way to evaluate religion, but that isn’t what they’re doing now. While they aren’t treating their religion — ie what they believe — the same as new potential beliefs, the method they’re actually using simply doesn’t allow for the OTF to get off the ground, as they’d be required to treat the other religion as true to make that work. That’s actually impossible since it would require accepting multiple incompatible beliefs, so Loftus needs to first get the religious to adopt that his way of evaluating religions is the right one, and then ask them to use it to determine the reasonability of their religion. Which leads to the second consequence …

2) Because he’s now making a normative claim and not just a claim about what people are currently doing, he needs to justify that his way of viewing religions and evaluating them is the one that we ought to follow. I, personally, do see some value in not re-evaluating currently held beliefs — even those that we learned at “Mama’s knee” or, rather, culturally — without having sufficient evidence to think that the belief is wrong. This is a major epistemological difference between myself and Loftus, and one that I’ll address later. But he does need to establish this view, and he doesn’t spend a lot of time doing that, and that’s really where the battle is, and where I think a lot of the challenges that he dismisses with the constant “I’m just asking you to do what you’re already doing and have already accepted!” counters are aiming at: saying that his method doesn’t work and so no one does and no one can use it.

Now, an aside about another defense that Loftus constantly uses. One of his main goals is to solve the problem of religious diversity, and therefore to converge on the one true answer, whether that is a particular religion or no religion at all, which is the view that he at least currently favours. So he constantly demands that people who challenge his method have to come up with a method that will solve the problem of religious diversity better than his. There are a few problems with this demand. The first is that just because his method might solve the problem of religious diversity, that doesn’t actually mean that it’s the right method. We definitely are able to say that his method resolves it in an invalid way if we think that it will come to the wrong final conclusion, and if that conclusion is that there is no right answer we ought to be suspicious of how easily it snips away all competing theories; Loftus needs to be able to say that his method could get the right answer if one existed. Second, just because a method resolves the conflict more efficiently and so is better at solving that problem from that perspective does not mean that it ends up with the right answer. This follows from the first point: the method may prune away the right answer instead of just the wrong answers. Third, it is possible that there is no way to solve this problem; we may not be capable of resolving which religion is the right one, or if any religion is or can be right. So, for all of these reasons, one can indeed say that his method is wrong without providing a better alternative by some arbitrary standard, acceptable to Loftus. So this defense will not save his method if it can be shown to be problematic.

I hope to pull out a few more issues over the next little while to examine in some detail, if I don’t get distracted by shinies [grin].

MMO Saturation?

December 16, 2014

Note: Some of these might not be running anymore …

I was browsing through the Best Buy PC games section recently, and noticed that I would grab what looked like an interesting RPG from the shelf and far more often that I would have expected it turned out to be an MMO. That I’d never heard of. Okay, maybe I’d heard of Rifts somewhere along the line and ignored it, but there was one game that did surprise me (Vanguards of something or other, I think?).

So, in terms of MMOs, here are the ones that I know are still running.

* I think the original Everquest is.
* Everquest 2 is still online.
* There was a box for Ultima Online in the store. No, really.
* Dark Age of Camelot is still online.
* Champions Online is up and running, as is City of Heroes and the newcomer DCUO.
* Lord of the Rings Online is still online.
* Eve Online is still online.
* So is Pirates of the Burning Sea.
* Star Wars Galaxies might still be running, as far as I know.
* Guild Wars is still running.
* Age of Conan is still out there.
* Final Fantasy is still out there, although if I remember correctly they’re on their second iteration.
* And there’s a little game called World of Warcraft that I think is still running. I’m not sure about that, though; did it ever get a large number of subscribers? I’m not sure how much attention it got once it went online …

And I’m sure there are a ton of others out there that I just haven’t heard of.

Now, Earthrise just came out. Guild Wars 2 is on the way. So is Star Wars: The Old Republic. And there are probably others that I’m just not aware of.

That’s … a lot of games. Since most of these require subscriptions — although a number of these are going “free-to-play” — that’s a lot to play at once. And since these games technically don’t have endings there’s no set time for you to stop playing, unlike regular RPGs. So is the saturation point for MMOs lower than that for other games? Is it harder to divide up the market for MMOs than for other types of games? Is this why perfectly good games are floundering after release when they were expected to do better, and older games aren’t fading away as quickly as you’d think they would?

This might be something for MMO makers to look into: are the dynamics of the market different for MMOs? Is the genre of the game more important than it is for other types of games, especially other types of RPGs? Do developers need to find another niche to exploit, as creating yet another fantasy MMO just won’t cut it no matter how good it is?

What’s the future of the MMO?

Philipse on Analogy: Relying on Swinburne

December 15, 2014

I haven’t given up on this one yet, but I haven’t made too much progress on reading it since October because I read Chapter 7 and Chapter 8 … and Chapter 7 is, in my opinion, a mess. It is such a mess that I feel the need to go through it in detail instead of just pulling out a few main points and addressing them. And I just didn’t have the time or energy to do that until now.

But before I do that, I want to pull out one point to talk about. When Philipse talks about analogy in Chapter 7 and 8, he brings in an argument from Swinburne where Swinburne argues that if theists make too many things about God allegorical, they’ll end up saying nothing. There’s nothing wrong with doing that, and using a theist to buttress his point about how theists cannot rely on allegory doesn’t hurt him and can help; the argument can’t be dismissed as an argument that rules out all religious positions a priori, for example, if a theist thinks that they can work around it. Where Philipse fails, however, is that while he’s still in a section dealing with general religious beliefs, he ends up focusing on Swinburne’s view and how it doesn’t escape Swinburne’s own admonishment against analogy. This results in two issues. First, it leaves a lot of the general views untouched, as they don’t have the same framework as Swinburne and so might not be vulnerable to the same attacks. The biggest example of this is with the discussions of necessity in Chapter 8, where classical theism — which is probably the view most dependent on necessity — is mostly ignored in order to focus on Swinburne’s relations with Kripke and the like. As classical theists are also very likely to use analogy and argue that they still say something, this leaves a fairly popular general religious view mostly unrefuted. The second problem is one that Philipse acknowledges: if successful, he would end up refuting Swinburne’s arguments about half-way through the book, leaving little to talk about. The main issue here, however, is that he hasn’t given us Swinburne’s full argument and a full treatment of Swinburne’s full position yet, so we don’t really know how important this is to Swinburne’s view or if he can indeed really sidestep it. So we either come away convinced that Swinburne is defeated by his own argument — but note, nothing about the Bayesian reasoning that Philipse thought was so important — or wonder if Philipse isn’t just being a little cute here, trying to refute the view before talking about it, and taking valuable time away from the general question to address a point he needed or wanted to make later.

The key is whether or not refuting Swinburne on analogy is really the important counter-argument for God in the Age of Science or not. If it is, then bringing up that argument should really have been done there, as part of the overall refutation and showing how even Swinburne’s procedure doesn’t work to establish a credible theory for the existence of God. If not, then it again should have been left there as an aside, if necessary. What Philipse, in my opinion, needed to do was use Swinburne’s argument against analogy as a framework for this own arguments, and spent a lot of time arguing why you can’t use analogy to describe God in any meaningful way without arguing that Swinburne actually ends up having to use too much analogy himself. This would have allowed for a tighter focus on the general issue without cluttering it up by talking about Swinburne’s purported problems, and would have allowed more room to discuss Swinburne’s own issues later, in the full context of Swinburne’s full position. As it was, I don’t feel that, at this point, he’s addressed either side very well, and as well as he needed to.

I’ll say more about Philipse’s issues when I talk about Chapter 7 directly.

We Could Be Heroes …

December 15, 2014

Note: As I said yesterday …

So, I tried DC Universe Online, and managed to get two characters to level 6. At which point I have decided that I have no interest in actually continuing the game. That’s a little too short a playtime for an actual review, but since I have a column that’s good enough for a commentary.

DC Universe Online, to me, had potential. Tying it into the DC universe made it interesting — even though I’m not a huge fan of DC comics — and a lot of the choices and the backstory sounded interesting. That the initial missions, at least, are story arcs made it even better.

So where’s the problem? The problem, at least for me, is in the mix of the action elements and the story elements. Or, rather, how they don’t mix. In the game, you spend most of the arc in the streets, dealing with outbreaks and the like in specific areas. You have a mix of “Defeat X minion” and “Retrieve X thing” and “Protect X person/thing” missions. Which all sounds good. However, you have them all at the same time, while you’re out on the street … a street that you share with other heroes that may not be in your group. Which means that you end up competing with them for scarce resources. In at least some cases, you can get credit for helping someone else while they actually do the work, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Well, at least it prevents kill stealing. But anyway, sometimes these things spawn rarely and so you have a long time to wait to get one. I, at least, felt the need to leap onto anything that popped up for fear that I’d lose it and have to wait longer.

Add to this that you have multiple objectives per step. So you’re killing things and destroying things and protecting things all in one go. And they aren’t all directly related; invariably you end up with one objective that you’ve barely started when you’ve finished the others. And while you’re waiting for one to spawn, you not only have to deal with things that spawn for the other objectives (like enemies) but with things that spawn just to make your life more difficult (like enemies). All in all, the street parts are chaotic and hard to keep track of, and you can get knocked out if you fail to keep track of what’s going on.

But where it really fails is in the instances. For the most part, they’re good. They’re even slightly less chaotic than the street missions, and there’s no competition. This is good. But the final battles tend to add the chaos back in, and add additional objectives that you have to meet. You may have to plan out a strategy to beat it, but it isn’t at all clear from the first try what you need to do and how to play it. That leads to playing it wrong and getting beaten. And every time you’re beaten, the health and objectives reset. So you keep plugging away until you stumble on the right strategy for your character, and manage to beat it.

All of this combines to not wanting to enjoy the story, but to get the missions out of the way as quickly as possible.

And that’s the problem: the chaos seems to be there to add to the actiony bent of the game. And yes, it does lend itself to a nice action-based combat system. And if I liked that, I might be able to forgive the game. But I don’t, and so the chaos takes me out of the game and into a strictly mechanical “hunt that down and finish the quest” mindset. Which means I’m not enjoying, say, stopping Scarecrow’s men from spreading their fear gas. Which means I’m not enjoying the story.

You can compare this to City of Heroes and the X-Men Legends/Marvel Ultimate Alliance games. The stories here are better than most of the arcs in CoH, and possibly the entire story in the Legends/Ultimate Alliance games. They’re really well-done, in my opinion. But I’m not enjoying them. And I’m not enjoying them because the action elements are getting in the way, and making me forget why I’m doing what I’m doing. That’s bad.

And CoH and the XML/MLA games both solve this conundrum in different ways. CoH solves it by instancing those competition missions, allowing for players to use strategy and take their time with them. They never feel rushed. While there are “Arrest 10 X” missions that are in the world, that’s a pretty minor competition that can be annoying but generally isn’t. But competing for glowies is non-existent, as they’re all in instances, meaning that you always have enough to meet your objectives.

XML/MUA goes the other way. While CoH toned the action down to get at the story (slowing down the game), those games ramped it up. You face a ton of enemies. Most of which are fairly easy to beat, especially since they I think allow you to set the level of difficulty to what you want. But there’s a lot of action. But the story fits around it; you’re told to go here and do these things, you clear out enemies and then do those things, story advances, and more enemies appear. So while CoH slows things down, XML/MUA speed things up. And at the end of the day, both are better at the action/story mix than DCUO is.

So … I will be cancelling my subscription. And maybe going back to CoH. While waiting for The Old Republic and Guild Wars 2.

So that I can be a hero again …

(I never did try GW2, am playing TOR, and wish I could play CoH again …)

Let’s Make This … Difficult

December 14, 2014

Note: I’m not playing DCUO anymore …

So, what you’ve probably come to expect from me so far are wide-ranging articles about very general and abstract concepts that reference more than one game. And, to be honest, I have a couple of those percolating in the back of my mind . But lately, I’ve been playing DC Universe Online, and I think that I can sum up that game in one sentence:

Healing potions have a cooldown.

Yep, you read right. At least the initial healing potions — called Soder Cola, I believe, which I’m sure is some great reference to something really cool in the DC Universe, but I was never that big a fan of DC comics — have a cooldown timer on their activations. Which means that after you use one, you have to wait before you can use one again. For a surprisingly long time.

Now, this might be okay for something like the “Rest” button from City of Heroes, which is a power and all and so if it didn’t have a cooldown you could just keep using it and using it and using it. But these things are, in fact, consumables. You can pick them up in the game and can buy them from associates, but they cost you money and you always only have a limited amount of them. So you aren’t going to be able to keep using them, since you’ll run out eventually. The game should let you down them like, well, soda if you want, since you’ll eventually run out or have to conserve them at other points in the game to make up for the spamming of them you did in the part that you found more difficult.

Ultimately, it seems to me that DCUO was so worried about the game being too easy that they decided to make it more difficult through really, really odd means. The game is chaotic and even at lower levels just tosses additional objectives at you, even in final boss missions where you’re having enough trouble just keeping Power Girl from pounding you into the floor. Especially since if you do happen to get knocked out, the health of your enemies and those extra objectives tend to reset, at least in the final instanced stages. So, in order to avoid making it too easy, they may have made it too difficult.

That will not bode well for the future of that game. Especially since DCUO has the potential to draw an awful lot of casual gamers in who want to fight alongside Superman and Batman or Lex Luthor and the Joker. Those sorts of gamers will not take the frustration of retrying and retrying and retrying well.

(Another note: TOR uses the same system. It’s very irritating, but the story is strong enough to drag me through that one).


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