Archive for the ‘Video Games’ Category

Loot, There It Is!

November 15, 2017

So, Shamus Young wrote a post answering a reader’s question about whether we might be entering into another PC Golden Age. This is a bemusing topic for me, since I recently bought five new PC games … all from Good Old Games, all older games, and one of them, at least, I bought because I originally played it on the Amiga. I can’t think of any new PC games I want to play and, in fact, can’t even really think of any new console games that I want to play. While I’m more likely to buy a new video game in the next few months, I’m far more likely to be anxiously awaiting a new board game than I am a video game (Legendary: Buffy in particular). So to me it’s not looking like much of a Golden Age, for gaming in general and PC gaming in particular.

But, I recently picked up a new game. And it contains one of the big things that Shamus doesn’t like: loot boxes. And yet … I kinda like the loot boxes. But on reading Shamus’ complaints — and especially the links to what they do in Star Wars: Battlefront 2 and Shadow of War — I can definitely see the potential problem with them.

See, the thing is, why they work for me in Injustice 2 is because I get credits and loot boxes for, well, doing the things that I want to do in the game. Supposedly, they can increase stats and so add benefits and power to your character, but I generally play the game on the easiest mode possible anyway so I don’t really care. I like the idea of using them to customize characters, although I don’t get quite the same thrill on opening them as other people will because the list of characters I like to play with is very short — Supergirl and Black Canary — and so most of the stuff that comes up are things that I have no interest in. Which, of course, means that I’m completely immune to any kind of additive or even gambling type of stimuli, because I’m not opening each box with trepidation hoping for something really, really good. I’m more in the mode of opening up the things that I earned to see if there’s any goodie inside. And yet, there still indeed is a bit of a thrill in opening them up and seeing what I got.

And this, then, triggers the problem, as was pointed out in this article about Star Wars: Battlefront 2:

This system is just miles worse than a traditional progression system that allows players to choose what they want to upgrade. While loot boxes could work in a game like this sprinkling in extra stuff here and there, used as the entire core of the progression system, it’s beyond frustrating. You’re now not just grinding for upgrades, your grinding for the chance at an upgrade that you actually want …

Which returns it to my experience with Injustice 2. Since I only like a small number of characters, what I’d like — even if all of the loot is merely cosmetic — to do is buy stuff for those characters, at least at first. And for those characters, I’d like to buy the things that I want them to have, like specific costume options or things that improve the traits that I most rely on in the fights, or whatever. Under the old models, even and perhaps especially in fighting games, I fought through enough to get enough credits to buy the things I wanted, and in general I saw exactly how much that would cost me well in advance and so, since I can also figure out how much I earn on average doing specific things, could know how long it would take me to get there (roughly) and thus, if I had to grind, knew how long the grind would be and could decide if it was really worth it for me.

With this system, I have no idea how long that will take. I have to grind to get the credits and/or boxes, and then when I open them I’ve either gotten something I wanted or I haven’t. If I have, then I can stop. If I haven’t, then I need to keep grinding again. In the worst case, I’m spending lots of time doing things I didn’t really want to do in the hopes of getting what I want or need, in an endless cycle of earning, looking at, and then sighing and going back to the things I don’t really want to do again.

But this gets worse, as I think that game designers have underestimated how much hope turning into disappointment can impact the attitude of a player. If I get enough to buy an appropriate loot box, I will feel some hope that maybe, this time, I can get what I wanted. And then that hope will come crashing down when I don’t get what I wanted. In fact, if I end up only getting things that I don’t want, that disappointment will only be heightened. Essentially, the game will continually force the player into a cycle akin to Christmas morning, where they run downstairs to open their present full of hope that they’ll get that gift they’ve wanted for ages … only to be disappointed when they find out that that’s not what they got after all and, even worse, they got something they don’t like and can’t use. And the game will do this over and over and over and over, in the worst and likely even in the most common cases. That can’t make the player pleasantly disposed towards the game.

The only way to avoid this is to make the loot boxes and the things they contain unimportant, nice little asides that you can open that might have something interesting in it but in general might just have trash. So as you earn them, you open them up to see if you get anything neat but you are never really looking to get anything specific or really interesting from them. The problem with this is that if they are that unimportant/uninteresting no one will grind to get them and certainly no one will pay real money to get them, and so they won’t achieve any of the goals that the developers are putting them into the game to achieve. But if they make them important enough for that, then their random nature will cause players to be very upset at being jerked around. And unlike CCGs, these loot boxes exist pretty much entirely within the game itself, so anger at that system will definitely carry over to the game itself.

So, the only reason that I like the loot boxes in Injustice 2 is because I don’t really care about what’s inside, and so there’s some fun in the anticipation of what I might get and I think that it might be neat to see what some of the options are. But I certainly don’t care enough to play the game to get more of the boxes and see what’s inside; if I’m not having fun playing the game, I’m not going to play it to get the next loot box, so adding the loot boxes to the game didn’t add any incentive for me to play the game. And if I did care, getting a ton of Joker and Green Arrow gear when I really wanted Black Canary and Supergirl gear would have made me quit the game in disgust. If I like the game, then I’ll play it regardless of the loot boxes, and if I really want the loot then the loot boxes not giving me a predictable path to the loot I want is going to frustrate me more and sour me on the game. It’s only if I actually get addicted that these moves can pay off … and that’s probably not a market that games want to deliberately cater to.


Thoughts on Injustice 2

November 13, 2017

As I’m sure I’ve stated before, I tend to play fighting games for the story, and not for the actual fighting. I had picked up Injustice a while ago, played it, and enjoyed it, and so while browsing in EB Games I came across Injustice 2 for the PS4 and decided that I’d give it a shot. Since this is a recent game and I’ll be talking heavily about the plot, I’ll put the rest below the fold:


You asked for it …

November 10, 2017

So, over at Feminist Frequency, Carolyn Petit has posted a commentary on Super Mario Odyssey. However, her really big complaint ends up being about something that the game pretty much did to subvert gender expectations and the damsel in distress trope in the way that Sarkeesian’s entire “Tropes vs Women” series seemed to call for. It’s no surprise that it wasn’t a good move, and only a slight surprise — presumably to people who haven’t been paying attention to how the Social Justice side generally engage in games — that Petit doesn’t like it.

Before I get into that, though, I want to talk about the Tiara and the Cap (and the thief of the night):

This time around, it’s not just Peach who needs rescuing. There’s also Tiara, the sentient crown Bowser has snatched to rest upon Peach’s head during the nuptials he’s rapidly arranging. Now, Tiara is not just a living hat. No, Tiara is a female hat, and with her in danger, her brother Cappy rides along on Mario’s mop, giving him the remarkable powers he needs to complete his quest.

I mean, look. In a series that has been relying on gendered tropes for decades, if we’re gonna go so far as to gender the hats, couldn’t we at least switch things up and have the female hat (Hattie, perhaps?) ride along with Mario on a quest to rescue her brother? But no, Odyssey does damseling twice over, delivering a one-two punch of reinforcing those good ol’-fashioned video game gender norms.

So, here’s the issue. They came up with the idea of using parts of the characters’ apparel as sentient beings that can help out the characters, or at least be confidants for them (I don’t know how much of a role the tiara plays in Princess Peach’s story, at least throughout the game). They chose their typical head wear … or, at least, what would be typical head wear for their occupations (cap for a plumber, tiara for a princess). Now, these clothes are in some sense gender-typed; while women can indeed wear caps, men don’t generally wear tiaras, and a cap would not go with a princess outfit, and a tiara would not go with a plumber’s outfit. With the tiara, at least, being strongly feminine, if they had tried to make the tiara male and the cap female, it would have turned into a joke, because of the incongruity of a tiara being masculine. This means that if they did that, it would have been seen as a joke and it would have lent itself to more and more jokes about the incongruity, which would have annoyed Petit to no end, I imagine. The only way around that would be to make the cap and the tiara both non-presenting trans, which would have introduced many complications and more serious content than a Mario game — primarily aimed at kids — would want to do. So they took the easy way out and made them match the impressions, in a way that really isn’t any more problematic than what they were doing with Princess Peach in the first place and in all of their other games … which Petit then gripes about as being a doubling of damseling.

Sorry, but that criticism seems both petty and ignorant of the potential consequences of the switch, including the idea that Peach might be controlled by a male character in some sense (depending on the role of the tiara in the game, which I haven’t played).

But now onto the scene that she really hates:

The final battle takes place as Mario literally crashes Bowser’s wedding ceremony. Once the battle with Bowser is at an end, Mario, Peach and the Koopa King are together on the surface of the moon. Bowser, not entirely out of steam, charges up to Peach with an offering of a piranha plant, still trying to win her over. And here’s where things really got weird for me. Mario also crowds Peach, holding a flower, engaging in a moment of “pick-me!” rivalry with the Koopa King. For a few seconds, the two dudes elbow and jostle each other, pushing their respective flowers in Peach’s face.

Now, this is a really messed-up thing for Mario to do, a vile position to put Peach in. Furthermore, until this point in the series, it’s remained plausible that Mario’s motives for rescuing the princess were mostly selfless. One could say that he simply objected to her freedom being infringed upon, and didn’t want a brute like Bowser getting away with his dastardly schemes.

However, this moment suggests that it’s not that at all, that the real reason he’s rescued Peach so many times is because he wants her for himself. I’ve made countless jokes with friends over the years about how the surprise plot twist of the Mario games will someday be that Mario was the villain all along, but this game was the first that kinda made me believe it. It was impossible for me not to think about the twist ending of the Mario-influenced game Braid, in which the protagonist Tim is revealed to be a stalker, not a hero. Peach has long served as a reward for players in these games, but this scene made me think that Mario, too, sees Peach more as a prize than a person.

To her credit, Peach doesn’t deign to give Mario so much as a kiss on the cheek, but instead gives both of these jerks the cold shoulder and walks off, at which point Mario and Bowser take some solace in their shared rejection. I guess at the end of the day, Bowser is really just another one of the Bros., and, well, you know what they say about Bros.

Yeah, and do you know why all of that is there? To set up that scene where Princess Peach rejects them both and storms off in a display of female empowerment, to later cruise around the world herself having adventures. This is clearly an attempt to subvert the damsel in distress trope — and, particularly, the “Women as Reward” trope — in precisely the way that Sarkeesian had talked about in the past. Yes, to do that you have to derail Mario into someone who presumably was at least seen as being in this for the reward of the love of the princess instead of just trying to do the right thing, but what’s derailing an entire male character when compared to making that obviously visible pro-feminist statement? Which Petit, of course, likes; it’s making Mario a, in her words, “creep” and that Princess Peach didn’t get to do more than she objects to. Um, despite the fact that Mario falling in love with her isn’t actually unreasonable, and that the only thing that, to me, makes his timing suspect is that Bowser isn’t actually real competition. If Bowser was seen as real competition that Peach might have chosen but only if she didn’t believe Mario felt that way about her, then the timing would be necessary, somewhat romantic, and fit into the normal trope that people really should express their feelings about each other if they have them.

Anyway, why did this scene flop for everyone? Because it put, it seems to me, the feminist message ahead of telling a good story. Petit can argue that it’s there just for a cheap joke, but with the final sequence where Peach goes off to be an independent woman having her own adventures that’s hardly likely. No, it seems obvious to me that they wanted to do the sort of subversion that people like Sarkeesian and Petit ask for and didn’t care if they derailed the existing characters to do it, and instead ended up getting complaints because they derailed Mario into someone who is non-feminist (ie a “creep”) with nary a mention that he was derailed in a terrible way specifically to promote a feminist message. Feminists didn’t like it because it wasn’t feminist enough, in that Peach got limited freedom and Mario fit their idea of a “creep” or “Bro”, and non-feminists — or, at least, those who pay attention to the underlying theme — won’t like it because it derails Mario for a ridiculous feminist subversion that even the feminists don’t care for. This is precisely what happens when you try to satisfy the vague and poorly thought out demands of much of the Social Justice line instead of looking at your games and your story and deciding what you want to do. In short, don’t listen to what they say they want, but look deeper to see if there’s a valid complaint and do the work to fix that complaint.

Of course, if you do that, shallow analysis might still have them up in arms. But shallow fixing of complaints brought about by shallow analysis won’t make anyone happy. Least of all you.

The Importance of Goals

November 8, 2017

So, recently, Extra Credits did a video on what they have coined “The Arbitrary Endpoint Trap”. Essentially, this is the case where you are playing a game not just to have fun with the game and in fact might even be having less fun playing the game than you were earlier, but you have an endpoint or goal in mind and are trying to finish that before stopping for the night. In general, they are against this sort of thing, and are encouraging players to stop when they stop having fun, and to notice when games are trying to use these sorts of arbitrary — in some sense meaning “in-game goals that have no real impact on the player” — goals against them to get them to play longer or to play their game instead of another game.

There are a couple of problems with their analysis. The first is that often gamers — especially casual gamers — do get an improved experience from completing these “arbitrary” goals, even if that pay-off is only when you start the next session. The second is that the sort of goals that they cite for mobile games are actually a different goal altogether, being more of the “one more turn” type of mechanism than the “let me get this next level and I’ll stop for the night” sort of mechanism. I’d actually argue that in most of the cases that they cite as being problematic, the problem is that there aren’t enough arbitrary goals, or that they are in fact spaced out too much, not that they exist at all, and that adding more goals might solve more problems than trying to avoid making or following them.

As a casual gamer, one of the big hurdles I face in playing games is the fact that in order to really feel satisfied with my experience, I have to feel like I’ve made some sort of progress in the game. As I commented when trying to decide what to play after Persona 5 — as well as at other times — it is important to me to feel like I’ve managed to get somewhere in a game in a session, that I’ve made some progress or that something has happened. Record of Agarest War is always problematic for me since there are long stretches of grinding where you don’t advance the plot and only gain levels and skill points in the hopes of being able to eventually take out that boss that you need to finish the dungeon and advance the game. It’s particularly bad because it’s not the combat that I like about the game, but instead the story and the dating sim elements, so I end up spending many sessions doing things I like less in order to finally overcome the boss and therefore to be able to do the things that I actually liked to do in the game. Persona 3 had the same problem for me, because the dungeons weren’t all that interesting, so I’d spend one session merely grinding through the dungeons and then the next advancing S-links, which were the things I most enjoyed about the game. And that was when I could exploit the fact that the MC’s level carries over on NG+ to blow through the dungeon on one night. When I had to start from scratch and couldn’t do that, the game was more of a slog than really entertaining.

Now imagine how much worse this is if you can’t play the next day, and your next session is a week or more away. You can really start to feel like you’ve made little to no progress for months if you aren’t achieving any goals and are just grinding your way towards them. So a bunch of small, achievable goals will break up the grind and give you a good place to stop a session where you can feel that you’ve accomplished something in that session. This, of course, will mean that at times you will push on towards a goal to finish it rather than because you are maximizing your fun in the game, but the satisfaction you get from the feeling of having made progress will generally make up for that.

The video also ignores that there is often an experiential cost to stopping in the middle of something and trying to pick up where you left off in your next session. Let’s take their example of a book. The reason that I might want to push through a book and read the last ten pages even if I might enjoy it more if I was more awake and, well, wasn’t making it a goal to finish it tonight. And the reason is that the next time I sit down to read, I can sit down and start a new book and get into it without having to instead go back to that previous book, get into reading it again, only to have to put it down ten pages in — because it’s finished — and then pick up another book and get into that one. And presuming that there is at least some suspense in it or at least something driving me to finish those ten pages, leaving those ten pages to the next session can, in fact, leave me feeling tense and anxious to finish it. If I’m actually enjoying it, then I want to keep going and get to a nice end point, and stopping in the middle will always feel a bit less satisfying to me, even if I’m not enjoying it as much as I would when fresh.

Games, especially for casual gamers, can be even worse. Stopping in the middle isn’t always that easy, because for any game that is at all interesting there are things that you are trying to do and, depending on the game, various different things that you are trying to keep track of. In a strategy game, you usually have multiple objectives — including attacks, defenses and build and research queues, among others — that you are working towards. In RPGs, you usually have multiple quests on the go, and are also looking at level progression, equipment progression, and possibly even companion quests and influence. In adventure games, you almost always have to end on a puzzle that you are trying to figure out. And we can see that stopping in the middle of a match in a sports game would be terribly annoying. All of this only gets worse when your next session isn’t going to be the next morning, but is instead going to be the next week. Or perhaps even longer. Not only does that mean that you’ll have to take some time to get back into the game, you also might well have forgotten all of the things that you were trying to do, and have to spend time trying to remember that before playing again. And forgetting some of those things, depending on the game, could mean that you ruin your game because you, say, forgot to bolster the defense of that city or forgot to seek out your companion to talk to or trigger a quest before you take on the next mission and so lose the opportunity forever.

Or you could push on at less than optimal gaming fun for an hour or two and finish that, and start “fresh” the next day.

See, the thing about these “arbitrary endpoints” is that while they are in some sense arbitrary, when done properly they are also natural endpoints. They are a goal or achievement that you can use to say “Whew, that’s done, so now I can forget about them and do something else”. As such, they work to mark progress, by you getting something completed and thus being able to point to, at the end of your session, all of the things you got done. They can make endpoints of a progression, meaning that you don’t have to remember where you were in them the next time. They can make a natural ending point for the night, like the end of a chapter so that you can start from something that has even a minor resolution, and start over from something that is a natural new starting point. And these sorts of endpoints are important for the enjoyment of players and to allow them to not get completely sucked into an endless progression where they are still playing but not having fun because they haven’t hit a good place to stop yet.

Which brings us to their comments on mobile games taking advantage of our tendency to create and chase goals, because the problem with those games is that they don’t in fact have natural “arbitrary” endpoints, and so encourage “One more turn” sorts of gameplay. The game that most hits this for me is the game Star Wars: Rebellion, but the game that probably most exemplifies this is Civilization, where players keep playing for turns and turns and turns barely noticing the passage of time, and constantly thinking “I’ll just play one more turn” when they know that they really, really should stop. So why does this happen? Well, the issue here is that the players don’t really want to play for “just one more turn”, but instead want to play until one or more things get finished … but as those things get finished, you’ve had to start other things that also need to be finished, and all of these progressions have multiple chains where finishing one progression immediately starts the next one, and so on and so forth. So, in Rebellion, you might want to wait to finish building your Star Destroyer so that you can add it to a fleet, but then when it’s produced you want to send that fleet to capture a planet, and when that’s done the planet is now in uprising so you want to quash that, and send diplomats to make it happy and turn to your side, and then when that’s done attack the next planet, and so on and so forth. Meanwhile, the Rebels are threatening one of your planets so you want to chase them away, and Thrawn has figured out how to build Lancers so you should start building some for your fleets, and new ships have been built to add to fleets to attack more planets, and you want to see how your probes in the Outer Rim turned out and … well, you get the idea. There is no natural endpoint in the game, no point where you can say that nothing is happening so it’s a good time to stop. Sure, there’s downtime in the game, but that downtime is spent watching the progression bars pass so that you can get something done so that you can move on to the next thing, but there is no point in the game where there is nothing that you are waiting for.

This is precisely the sort of progression that they note is being exploited for mobile games.

Compare this to games like The Old Republic or Persona 5 or even games that rely heavily on “one more level”. In TOR, when you finish a section or especially finish a planet you have to either move on to the next area or return to your ship to move on to the next planet. While there are always quests to push you forward if you want to, finishing a planet or area gives you a natural down period when it seems reasonable to stop. For me, my playing of TOR was pretty much done that way: go through one section — which used to take me about three hours, doing every available non-heroic quest — and then return to the cantina for that sweet, sweet rest XP before doing the next section of the planet. While often the quests pushed towards the next area and tried to rush the player, knowing that there was no real rush and that I’d have to travel somewhere anyway — or, at least, just spent my time walking to the new area and so had had a lot of dull downtime — allowed me to quit the game for the day/night feeling like I’ve accomplished something and knowing that I wasn’t going to have to slog out to the middle of the area again if I quit early. In the Persona games, in general the dungeons and the deadlines gave a time when the game wound down for a little bit with a resolution before the next phase of the plot ramped up again. In games like City of Heroes, gaining a level — and a specific one — gave access to new powers that would be interesting for the next session and required me to trek to somewhere specific and thus to stop questing/grinding for a bit, and so finishing the level let me do that right before I quit for the night, meaning that I could start the next session doing quests and using that sweet, sweet new power that I got. In all of these cases, there’s a natural stopping point if you want one, but something that can push you forward if you don’t.

That doesn’t exist in those strategy games I mentioned, and likely not in those mobile games that they’ve talked about. And this means that you actually have to exert more willpower — or be more tired/bored — to quit those games, which then can lead to the problems that the video asserts. But the problem isn’t that those are arbitrary endpoints, but that the game tries as hard as it can to make there be no endpoints, arbitrary or otherwise.

This, of course, can backfire on them, especially in light of what I said about casual gamers earlier. If I have too many different progressions on the go, and come back to the game a week or more later, then I might forget what I was doing, or else might have a hard time getting back into the swing of the game. And if that’s the case, then I might screw up my game or at least not have as much fun playing it as I did that first session. And then I might stop playing it. Thus, their strategy to keep people from quitting their game might actually end up causing people to quit playing it, whereas if they’d even added something like a chapter break it might allow their players to get a sense of accomplishment and be better able to pick up where they left off the next day.

Arbitrary endpoints aren’t bad, and as endpoints actually work against the overly addictive “just one more turn” sort of thing they gripe about. If you constantly find yourself pushing yourself longer than you’d like to finish endpoints, maybe the problem isn’t having those endpoints, but that there aren’t enough of them to give you that sense of satisfaction without having to play for so long, and so adding some of them might, in the long run, be better for you and the fun you get from games.

MMO Difficulty …

October 18, 2017

So, recently while playing The Old Republic I decided to dismiss my companion because I was going to do the Rakghoul infection quests and noted that in the past when playing with a companion they either tended to kill all the Rakghouls or at least draw all their attacks, making the infection a bit too difficult to achieve. However, I made a mistake and clicked on myself instead of on the companion, and noticed a setting called “Mission difficulty”, which I had set to “Story”.

Huh. No wonder the game was seeming really, really easy lately [grin].

To be fair, I had probably at some point noticed it and deliberately set it to “Story”, because that’s really how I wanted to play the game anyway. But this reminded me of how important and yet how counter-intuitive difficulty levels are for MMOs.

TOR isn’t the only MMO that did difficulty levels. The one that I’m most familiar with, City of Heroes (sniff), did it before it ended, and I’m sure other MMOs have tried it as well. But it seems kinda off to have difficulty levels in an MMO, since it would mean that you’d have different players in the world playing the game at different difficulty levels. Since one of the easiest ways to implement difficulty levels in an MMO — especially one that is heavily instanced — is to reduce the hitpoints and attack and defense strength of enemies, which can run into problems if you are in fact in a group and have to decide how to adjust them given the players in the group. Even adding attack and defense to the player’s character can cause problems, especially if, say, you give bonuses for damage done. It almost always seems like a safer and easier move to simply pick what you think is a reasonable difficulty level and let people who find it too difficult find a group to help them with those missions.

But the problem goes both ways. Some players will find some enemies to be too easy for them, and some missions thus too trivial, and would rather have a greater challenge, one that tests their skills. Thus, they might even want to play at a level where if you make even one mistake your character dies in order to have a tense challenge that forces them to practice their skills and pay close attention to the battles they are in. Obviously, setting the enemies to have this level of difficulty for everyone would eliminate most of your player base, so without difficulty levels they rarely, if ever, get that sort of challenge, and are bored.

Difficulty levels also provide a hedge against server population shrinkage. There might be a mission that is readily beatable with a group, but very tough to solo. This is fine and possibly even something to encourage when populations are high, but as they decline someone might really want or need to complete that mission and yet can’t find enough people interested in it to form a group to do it. Dropping the difficulty, if they are experienced or geared enough, might let them complete it anyway, even if they can’t find a group. Sure, they might be able to outlevel the mission enough to complete it, but that might require grinding and grinding is boring … and even then, changing the difficulty level means less overleveling they have to do before they can beat that mission.

Difficulty levels seem odd in an MMO, and yet they can indeed be useful to solve some issues that MMOs have and keep MMOs appealing to players longer.

The Politicization of Games

October 16, 2017

So, in another video, Extra Credits talked about politics in gaming and, specifically, the calls to get politics out of gaming. This sentiment is opposed by the argument that it can’t be done because, as they put it, “All media is political”.

Unfortunately, there is a major problem with their argument. In an aside, they say that we shouldn’t get rid of politics in games whatever that means because of what politics in games brings to them and to other works, but by so saying they reveal that they don’t know or at least aren’t certain what those who want to get politics out of games mean when they say that. And yet they spend the entire video talking about politics in media and why it can’t be taken out of games, and making the bold statement that “All media is political”. This is an argument ripe for equivocation, where they spend their time arguing against people who don’t like politics in games by using their definition of politics, while ignoring the definition that those on the other side of the argument are using. Thus, they can insist that politics in media are good and that all media is political as if they are refuting those people, while never actually addressing the sense in which their opponents use the term to argue that politics in media are bad and that not all media are indeed political.

Which, if you watch the video, seems to pretty much be the case. They tend to argue that politics are the examination of real world issues, political concerns, philosophies, and ethical dilemmas, and that these things are part and parcel of what make up people and also provide some of the best conflicts in games, and that therefore games without politics would have to drop all of those sorts of examinations. The problem is that when most people argue against politics in a media, what they really mean is not examination of issues inspired by real life, but instead has as its primary intent an attempt to argue for a specific idea, with the aim of convincing the consumer of that media that their position is the correct one. It doesn’t examine the issue as much as it propagandizes it, setting up the world and the outcome so as to present the consumer with what they hope is a compelling argument to adopt their viewpoint. In general, such attempts are not subtle, and are often heavy-handed, because the message has to be received and understood by the consumer or else the work didn’t do what it was intended to do.

They give examples of some works that did this, and one of them is Star Trek, which I think is a good example to use to demonstrate the difference. Star Trek TOS — which is what they pictured in the video — definitely reflects the political views of Gene Roddenberry, and deliberately invokes his ideas of diversity. However, what got it acclaim is that, for the most part, it explores and examines various issues without being overly obvious about its messaging. For most of the episodes, a case can and often is made for either side of the divide. For example, in “City on the Edge of Forever”, Edith Keeler is presented as someone who preaches the ideals of Roddenberry and of the Federation as presented, and yet those ideas being listened to at that time is presented as something that creates a disaster against the Nazis. The message of the episode is not that those ideals are wrong, nor that humans at the time, at least, were just too primitive to understand how right she was and that humanity is now more evolved, but instead the message is, as I believe is directly stated “She had the right ideas at the wrong time”. This allows everyone to enjoy the episode and the exploration even if they disagree with that specific message, or with any of the issues stated or explored in the episode. This can be contrasted with the more explicit messaging in Star Trek TNG, especially in the early seasons, where it was criticized for being so heavy-handed in its messaging that anyone who disagreed at all with it — and even some who did — found the Federation to be insufferably smug, constantly preaching their message and going on about how evolved they were now over those poor humans of roughly our time, as best exemplified by the first season episode “The Neutral Zone”. TOS explored issues, while TNG preached them.

Now, I personally don’t really mind if a creator wants to preach their worldviews and so makes a work of fiction specifically to try to promote them, as long as they are up front about that and, of course, that not all works try to do that, because works that aim for messaging tend to be less entertaining than those that aim for entertainment or to explore ideas. But another issue that we’re coming across here is the issue of politicization, where games and other media are being infested with strong politics with exploration of ideas and simple entertainment being pushed out. This happens in two ways:

1) Where various sources are pushing for games to insert more explicit political messages in order to become more mature or more relevant to the real world.

2) Where various sources push that games should only express certain specific political messages, usually ones that happen to align with their own personal views.

And this video, seemingly inadvertently, supports at least the first form of politicization, by saying that games are mature enough to handle politics and that politics are good and provide the conflict while conflating the exploring real world issues and views that people hold with political messaging. Because they don’t really examine in detail what the opponents of politics in gaming mean by that, they end up arguing by implication that any examination of a real world view or even anything inspired by that is at the same level as an explicit and direct attempt to arguing for a specific political or philosophical position, and thus justifying both equally. This is only made clear in their discussion of Missile Command as an example of politics in games, looking at nuclear proliferation … despite the fact that you could easily play and enjoy that game if you didn’t make that link at all. Their argument that all media is political is also undercut by games that were contemporaries of Missile Command that didn’t even have that subtle level of messaging and were at least as good as it, like Pac-Man, Defender and Asteroids. You don’t really need to have any kind of political message to make a good game.

Thus, they justify the proliferation of specific and deliberate political message by buying into the “All media are political” message which is also exemplified by the feminist “The personal is political” philosophical argument: if all media is political, then there really is no difference between a game that references real world messages or explores a real world political and philosophical issue, and a game that sets out to promote a specific political message. This idea is then used to deflect any criticism that the creator is really propagandizing their game or message by insisting that everyone does that, while ignoring that often they really aren’t, because they aren’t presenting any of those things as a conclusion, but are either simply copying them from society in order to relate better to their audience or that explore the issues without presenting either position on the issue to be necessarily right or better than anyone else’s. Thus, a game that happens to have a damsel in distress or engage in some fanservice is suddenly just as political as a game that tries to shame people for accepting or engaging in those tropes, and a game that explores the question of privacy concerns vs security against an enemy that could be anyone is just as political as a game that deliberately tries to show that privacy concerns should always trump security concerns.

What we are seeing in our increasingly polarized society is that more and more people want to use media not to produce a great creative work for people to enjoy but instead to promote their own specific ideas, and to criticize media that promote messages that they don’t agree with. This has, of course, been common throughout history. But what we’re seeing as society gets more polarized is that even not taking a side is seen by both sides as, in fact, taking the other side in the debate. So presenting both sides in a neutral way is political messaging, and simply referencing the ideas shallowly and building off of them to create the unrelated conflict in your work is also political messaging. Doing anything is a work is now, suddenly, political messaging.

Because, after all, “All media is political”.

When MMOs Die …

October 11, 2017

So, after talking about how much I still miss City of Heroes last week, this weekend I managed to get in a little of The Old Republic. There’s talk about a server merge, which usually indicates a declining population, which then can indicate that, perhaps, the game isn’t going to be around much longer. And while I recently commented that TOR might end up being the only game I play for about a year, in thinking about it I realized that if TOR died I wouldn’t miss it anywhere near as much as I miss City of Heroes. But I would miss it.

Which gets into the things that a player would lose when an MMO has to fold. For the most part, for me, the things that I’ve missed have been things about the world itself, and not the gameplay or the social aspects. As I commented last week, there aren’t all that many superhero RPGs out there, so losing City of Heroes meant losing that world. Another of my favourite MMOs was Dark Age of Camelot, and there simply aren’t any games out there that combine Arthurian Legend, Celtic Myth, and Norse Mythology and crossover between all of them. In fact, there aren’t all that many games that try to even present one of those worlds, let alone three. And while RPGs in that era definitely occurred before, the eight story TOR does something that the other games don’t have the ability or funding to do.

It seems to me that in order for MMOs to compete, they often had to take on either unique experiences or attach themselves to existing popular worlds in order to stand out from the saturated crowd. After all, in terms of mechanics, gameplay and social aspects there’s not that much room to move or stand out, and if a player really likes that sort of thing they not only can keep playing the game that they first joined, they actually have reason to given that they’d have social networks already built up and a number of in-game advantages. If you want players to move, then, you have to give them something new, and a new and interesting world is probably the easiest and least risky way to do that. This means, though, that when an MMO goes away so does access to that world.

And I think MMOs taking on a unique setting is potentially bad for that setting, because it discourages companies from trying a non-MMO game in that setting. While the MMO is running, it can be seen as too much competition for the new game to handle unless the population is big enough to handle multiple games, which many MMO settings are at least not believed to be. And when the MMO dies and the competition is no longer there, there is always the concern that this means that the target audience is burned out on the setting, and so a new game in that space won’t succeed.

I’d love a new, good superhero RPG. Or Arthurian, Celtic, or Norse RPG. But I haven’t really seen any lately, and so without playing the MMOs I don’t get to play in those worlds anymore. I can and have to believe that if TOR closed that a new Star Wars RPG would get made, but it wouldn’t quite be the same. It’s almost a shame, then, how the MMO surge managed to get games in those settings made, since it’s not likely that their success will translate into getting new games in those settings when they’re gone.

Gaming and Power Fantasies

October 9, 2017

So, I came across a video by Extra Credits talking about the problem with power fantasies and subtitling it “We Aren’t Always Right”. Now, as it’s a video quoting directly from it is a bit difficult, so let me try to sum up what I think the main argument is:

Most games contain some kind of power fantasy element, but for true power fantasies to work we have to always be right. This can lead to bad and potentially dangerous ideas. They think it would be good if games stopped for self-reflection and asked if the player’s powerful actions really are right, and take on what they seem to think is the main argument against that that it would ruin the power fantasy by arguing that those looking for a power fantasy are not so fragile as to have their experience ruined by such a thing, and so more games should do it.

The problem is that the entire video is short and incredibly vague. It moves from talking about games having power fantasy elements to talking about a true power fantasy, but gives no way to determine what counts as a power fantasy element vs a true power fantasy, and so leaves us no way to distinguish the two. Which is incredibly important, it turns out, as we need to know that to determine how common true power fantasies are in gaming. If they aren’t very common, then this likely isn’t all that big a problem. From there, the video moves on to talk about power fantasies generally in the context of combat and killing people, and thus essentially carves out the FPS genre specifically, and thus makes it unclear whether or not RPGs, in general, count. It also seems to treat combat as being, in their own words, “rampaging”, which in and of itself isn’t a big theme in most games, which at least try to give you a self-defense motive to kill those enemies. The big example used is of Uncharted, a game that I have not played, asserting that the protagonist is killing lots and lots of people just to get to the treasure at the end. Even if that is true for Uncharted, how common is that in gaming in general?

And when we consider whether what they are suggesting is going to ruin the power fantasy experience, we need to know what that experience is and what goal they are really pursuing, which the video never really talks about. Sure, they might have an entire half-hour video sussing all of that out — I’m not a regular viewer of theirs — but we really needed more than “It makes you feel powerful!” for a topic this complex. So, my general definition of power fantasy is going to be someone doing something that makes them feel strong or skilled or competent in a way that they don’t feel in every day life. Thus, simply being powerful and killing things may or may not be a power fantasy, as some players might prefer feeling like their charismatic, competent, skilled, or even important in a way that they aren’t in their real-lives. To their credit, the video does hint at this in their brief definition of power fantasy, but they focus on overall strength for the entire rest of the video, and I think it is important to note that a power fantasy may merely be competence, not overwhelming power. Thus, for example, someone might get a power fantasy out of a dating sim because the game makes them feel like they can attract members of the appropriate sex, whereas in real life they don’t have anywhere near that success. They also might get a power fantasy out of playing Batman not because of the bodies he leaves behind, but instead because he is someone who is always prepared for any situation, whereas in real life they at least feel like they aren’t. And so on and so forth. Focusing on questions of whether things are right doesn’t really make sense for those sorts of situations, where either the morals are clear or there isn’t really a moral question involved.

And on top of that, it’s also clear that the same game — even one that they think is a pure power fantasy — might be played by different people for different reasons. Someone might play Uncharted, say, because they want that purported power fantasy. Someone else might want to experience the story. Someone else might enjoy the gameplay. So even the most power fantasy game may well draw players who aren’t really interested in following the power fantasy, who have to be taken into account when you do these sorts of things.

And this leads to their last great vagueness: they don’t really say what they mean when they want the game to stop for self-examination and ask the player, presumably, if what they’re doing is right. Sure, they have some hypotheticals, but none of them would, in general, work in a game without being a literal immersion breaking record scratch, to use the metaphor they themselves use in the video. Presumably, we don’t want it to be the game stepping that far outside of itself to make this point, so it’ll have to be integrated into the game somehow. They give examples of some games that have tried … but I haven’t played any of them and so have no idea what they mean, and they don’t even give one real example.

So, let’s talk about the problem with this, which starts from the fact that presumably this, in general, isn’t going to be strictly a story point and is going to be something aimed at the player, or at least that they want the player to think about along with the player’s character. This is problematic because of the nature of games, where the game sets up the rules of the game and the player has to accept those strictures in order to play the game. Those strictures can be strict or they can be loose, but in general the game sets up the structure and lets us in on the assumptions it wants us to make, and then if we want to play the game for whatever reason we have to accept those strictures and assumptions and, ultimately, that world. If you want to play the open world Grand Theft Auto games, for example, you have to accept that your character is, at the very least, going to be a shady character and is going to have to commit some crimes during the game, even if all you want to do is follow the story, or do the open world activities.

So if a game sets up a world where to play the game we have to do certain things or, at least, are very strongly encouraged to do certain things, and then stops the game to ask us, the player, if what we’re doing is right, no matter why we’re playing the game we are likely to exclaim “This is what you told me I had to do to play the game!”. If we want to play the game, we have to accept its rules, and if its rules said that we had to do certain things to advance in the game, it’s not particularly fair for the game to them ask us if what we are doing is in some sense right. As an example, in the Persona games starting from Persona 3 you can romance various people and enter into, at the end of their Social Link, a relationship. You can do this with more than one person, essentially entering into what is presented as a dedicated relationship and have more than one formal girlfriend at a time. In Persona 4 and Persona 5, however, if you do that there will be consequences when they find out about it. Persona 4’s involves you having to essentially reject all but one of them for Valentine’s Day, with them clearly heartbroken over it, and you have to do it to their face, which can be wrenching. This would be a nice, in-game example of the game asking you, the player, through the character, if what you did was right. (Interestingly, the Persona 5 version is less dark given that Persona 5 was a darker game than Persona 4). But in Persona 4 and Persona 5 you were allowed when finishing the S-links with the girls to choose whether the relationship was friends or boyfriend/girlfriend, and you got pretty much all of the benefits of the S-link whether you chose friend or girlfriend. Thus, at the end of the day you, the player, made the decision to pursue a relationship with more than one girl, and so it’s fair for the game to call you out for that choice.

However, you don’t have that choice in Persona 3. If you max out the S-link with a girl, you are entering into a relationship with them, and you want to max out S-links so that you can fuse powerful Personas. Thus, the game doesn’t give you the choice of friends or not and sets up the game that you’d be greatly impaired if you don’t max out S-links with more than one girl. If Persona 3 had done the strong call outs of this that we see in Persona 4 and Persona 5, players would, rightly, feel that they were being called out for doing something that the game essentially made them do, which is not going to seem at all fair. This is going to cause hard feelings towards the game and any point that the game tried to make doing that would be lost.

This seems to be a common reaction to Spec Ops: The Line, which tried to subvert the FPS genre this way. While a number of people — Shamus Young included — really liked the subversion, and while I suspect that it’s the sort of thing that they’d like to see in games, many people seemed to feel that the game was chiding them for doing the things that the game made them do in order to keep playing. What were they supposed to do, quite playing? So they felt — in my opinion, reasonably — that the game deliberately set up the game to make them think that it was following the standard FPS tropes and assumptions, gave no or little indication that they should or could do something else, and then chided them for accepting the game as they presented it to them. The risk of asking the player if what they are doing is right is precisely this sort of reaction: why are you asking me if what you made me do to play the game is right? I’m playing a game here, I’m following your rules, and so if there’s any right or wrong here you probably should have thought of that before you put those mechanisms into the game. Especially since for many players — even those interested in a power fantasy — the things you are questioning are nothing more than the things they have to put up with in order to get to the parts of the game that they actually are interested in.

They make a comment later about it being a good thing to do even if the answer is “Yes”, by there being a sufficient justification, which leads to the second problem with this: if you are asking the player this question, they are the only ones who can answer it. The game can’t answer it for them. Thus, you need to be prepared for them to answer “No” as well as to answer “Yes”. If they answer “No”, what options do they have? Is their only option to stop playing the game? That’s not really what you wanted. But the game can’t assume that they’ll answer “No” either. What do you do? If this is a story point, then you’re more likely to be able to get away with answering it for the character — although that can be risky as well if the player doesn’t feel their character would agree — but if you are asking the player this and want them to think hard about it and answer it you have to be prepared for their answer, and have the game react accordingly. That’s not easy to do, but if you don’t do it you will get players who simply quit the game because it assumes the answer they didn’t give.

So it’s not really fragility that’s the issue here. It’s that doing stuff like this is really hard to pull of without ruining the game for the player. Some will be bitter that the game is asking them to self-reflect on things that it made them to to play the game. Some will be bitter that the game assumes an answer that they didn’t give to that question. Story players will be annoyed that this is aimed at the player and not the character, and that it takes time out from the story to deliver this pointless message. Gameplay players will be annoyed that this message is taking them out of playing the game, and they weren’t even paying attention at all to the things it’s aiming at, since, for example, you could have replaced all the people with target dummies and they still would have played it because the gameplay would have been the same. Even those interested in a power fantasy might complain that the killing isn’t the sort of power that they’re interested in, and asking whether or not that’s right is again asking them to self-examine over something that they were only doing to get to the good parts.

It seems to me that the video presents power fantasies as being more common than they are, and doesn’t get why that sort of self-examination can cause issues for all players, no matter why they’re playing the game. So, yes, it can be an issue, and it’s not just “fragility” that’s the issue there.

It’s Been Five Years …

October 4, 2017

… and I still miss City of Heroes.

I was musing on that while playing The Old Republic and creating my new character (a Jedi Consular modeled after Sabrina from Sabrina the Teenage Witch). I’m always struck when creating characters in any Bioware game just how limited the customization options are despite them seemingly being among the better studios at allowing it. And then I started looking at getting a nice outfit for her because Sabrina would be a fashion plate, and couldn’t find anything all that interesting. Perhaps it’s because I only had 2000000 credits to spend on the GTN and all the good outfits were out of my price range, and the Cartel Market options weren’t that interesting, but I found most of them somewhat interesting but far too similar for me to bother with. And I only cared about looks, not about stats, which makes it doubly depressing when I compare it to City of Heroes.

City of Heroes was probably my ideal MMORPG. Costuming was built into your character creation, so you could style everything about your character before you ever stepped into the world. The powersets were interestingly varied, both inside and outside the main divisions. The hero and villain worlds were interestingly varied. The story arcs were interesting. The task forces were amazing, and didn’t suffer from TOR’s problem where people often try to skip the cutscenes to get on with the rest of it if for no other reason than that about the only thing you got out of them was the story that linked the missions together, as the XP gain and quest rewards weren’t overwhelmingly impressive. All it lacked was TOR’s class story arcs — it actually had more area and quest story arcs than TOR does — and it was starting to build something like that at the end with Going Rogue.

I haven’t heard of any MMORPG doing anything as well. To be honest, I also haven’t heard of all that many new MMORPGs starting up either, and so maybe we have hit MMO saturation. There are supposedly a few independent studios trying to do CoH-like games, but only time will tell if any of them will be completed or be any good.

For superhero games, there aren’t that many out there. Champions Online did not seem like my type of game. I actually tried DC Universe Online, and am not interested in it. I own Freedom Force — both in original and in GOG form — but have never really been able to get into it. Replaying the Legends and Ultimate Alliance games are an option that I’ve mused about, and there’s that DC PSP Legends-type game that I keep considering playing. But other than the online Marvel stuff, I don’t even know about decent superhero type games anymore. And City of Heroes, before it died, was one of the best.

Yes, I still miss it …

How The Old Republic Could Spoil Me For Other Games …

September 13, 2017

So, I’ve been playing “The Old Republic” again. In fact, I just finished off my mostly Dark Sided Pureblood Sith Inquisitor. Calculating from when I got the in-game mails giving me all of the stuff that I get for being a subscriber, it took me about a month and a half of slightly more than once a week on average playing to get through the class story and all of the planet stories. I did enjoy it, although Drellik really, really irritated me.

At any rate, as I was playing and figuring out what other characters I wanted to try — next I’m planning on playing as Sabrina from Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and then taking on a Dark Side Sith Marauder to get the Jaessa romance — I noted that Bioware is right when they say that there are essentially eight RPGs in this one game. Each class story visits similar planets, and all of the planet arcs are the same for each character (depending on whether you side with the Empire or the Republic, of course), but the actual class story differs markedly. This means that I could, in general, cycle through playing one class story after another and be okay with the similarities in planet arcs, since it takes me a while to go through a character. For the planet arcs, using this rate as about the best I could possibly do it would take me about 3 months to repeat one, assuming that I alternate Empire and Republic, which is more than enough time for me to mostly forget the details and so to not have it feel overly repetitive.

Thus, in theory, I could continually cycle through all of the classes, creating a new character, playing through it, and then starting another one. Arguably, this could continue indefinitely. Since I can only play one game at a time right now, this would mean that I’d be playing only “The Old Republic” for at least a year at a time, if not longer.

I don’t think this will happen. That being said, I have just finished one character, have explicit plans to do two more this year, and want to do Smuggler and Agent again at some point, as well as potentially Bounty Hunter. Given that, it’s not as far-fetched as it originally seemed.