RPG Difficulties and Spandex Force

July 6th, 2011

Tonight I will have a few beers downtown.

Tomorrow I will go to Croatia for some sun, sea, beer and hiking in a national park.

Next week, unless something unforeseen shows up, I will release Spandex Force: Superhero U on an unsuspecting public.

But right now I intend to muse about difficulty in RPGs. The Rampant Coyote posted an entry about this and it got me thinking. He argues that a difficulty setting doesn’t necessarily have to mean just a more difficult game – it could also entail a new way of playing the game. It does make sense. Almost all games are full of (more or less) meta games – collect extra lives in SMB3, get all collectables in a casual game, and so on. A difficulty level that would result in a new way of playing the game is an intriguing thought, and might simply mean putting focus on some of the metagames instead of simply the main game.

Also, I agree with the necessity for difficulty levels in action RPGs. I just suck at action games and if I have to spend time on learning how to get my motor skills to work I’d rather press a big fat DELETE button and do something else. Give me the easiest setting, or give me hell!

Then again, I am strongly against difficulty levels in turn based RPGs and strategy games. For some reason I like the idea of playing the game like a puzzle; learn what I need to do to overcome this obstacle, and once I’ve come up with a solution it’s reproducable. An environment like that also lends itself well to meta games. What’s the lowest level I can beat Final Fantasy 5 at? What spells can I get at a ridiculously early stage of the game? Can I kill the dragon on Emerald Isle?

However, I realize that that point of view can be a bit obsessive and might not reflect the “normal” gamer. So I’ve actually opted for a different method with variable difficulty in Spandex Force: Superhero U. I imagine that the majority of players would rather just play and have everything adapt itself automatically.

Every minigame has a difficulty rating, from 1 to infinity. 1 is extremely easy, 20 getting challenging, 100 is very very hard. This difficulty determines how many tokens you have to collect to finish a minigame, or the opponent’s level (and the levels of his superpowers).

How is this difficulty determined? I’m glad you asked!

A base difficulty value is determined based on the player’s level. This value can range between the player’s level and the player’s level times 3. Then, each task has a relative difficulty from 1-10. Tasks in the first missions have a relative difficulty of 1-2, but the fights in the last episode have a difficulty of 9-10. The relative difficulty determines if the lower or the higher end of the base difficulty will be chosen. Let’s take an example:

Justice Guy is level 5, and will enter a task with relative difficulty 4.
Base difficulty = 5-15
Modified difficulty = (max – min) / 10 * relative difficulty + min = (15 – 5)/10 * 4 + 5 = 9

So, that’s it? The difficulty will be 9? Well, not exactly.

During gameplay, the player has a variable keeping track of how well he does. This variable starts at 50 and depending on whether or not he loses or wins minigames it increases and decreases to range between 0-100. This variable determines how likely it is that a new token falling onto the board will create a match. In other words: if you play well, it’s less likely that you’ll receive “free” chains when matching tokens, but more likely if things aren’t going so well for you.

Also, this variable affects the modified difficulty too. It can modify the value by 50%-200%. Let’s continue our previous example:

Justice Guy is level 5, and will enter a task with relative difficulty 4. He has a success variable rating of 78.
Modified difficulty = 9
After the variable of 78 has been taken into account, the difficulty is = 9 * 1.8 = 16

The final difficulty will actually be 16, in other words? Yes, almost. For scaling reasons I divide that value by two, though. So the final difficulty is 8.

In fact, I was toying with applying a quadratic transformation afterwards to smooth out the value, and give it a ceiling. It turned out to be a bad idea, though – it was hard finding a formula that would give suitable difficulty early as well as in the end. I tried this one, for example:

Justice Guy is level 5, and will enter a task with relative difficulty 4. He has a success variable rating of 78.
Modified difficulty = 16
Transformed difficulty = -0.0025x*x + 1x + 0.0025 = -0,64 + 16 + 0.0025 = 15.3625

Not much difference, eh? It would have been more of a difference if x was 100:

Transformed difficulty = -0.0025x*x + 1x + 0.0025 = -25 + 100 + 0.0025 = 75.0025

It seemed like a good idea at the time, but in the end I let the difficulty remain pretty linear. Theoretically I think that this means that a player can level up too much to finish the game…but if anyone has that much time to spare, I’ll eat my hat!

Unwinnable RPG Battles

April 13th, 2011

I’m having a lot of fun writing the dialogue for the final episode of Spandex Force: Superhero U. At one point the hero ends up in a fight that he or she cannot win – a common RPG cliché. I’ve never really liked the completely unwinnable battles, personally, so I’m adding a bit of a twist to this one.

No, this is not my game. It’s FF2.

It is possible to win the battle, and I assume that someone somewhere will actually level up and find good enough artifacts to beat up the Protector Mk III. What happens then? In the original Spandex Force I had a similar situation, where nothing really happened at all. The game just pretended that you lost. This time I’m better prepared, and a special dialogue will be invoked:

<text id=”hero” text=”Man, that was tough!”/>
<text id=”villain” text=”You… Defeated the Protector Mk III?!”/>
<text id=”villain” text=”That wasn’t supposed to happen.”/>
<text id=”hero” text=”Yeah, I can imagine that you think so!”/>
<text id=”villain” text=”No, seriously! That was not supposed to happen.”/>
<text id=”villain” text=”The storyline and the ending assumes that you lost this battle.”/>
<text id=”villain” text=”Let’s all just pretend that you got beat up by the robot, OK?”/>
<text id=”hero” text=”Um… I guess I can play along.”/>
<text id=”hero” text=”Alright, everyone! That robot was WAY too tough for me!”/>
<text id=”hero” text=”Let’s return to the university and think of something else.”/>

I can’t be arsed to prettify things, so you get to see my wonderful dialogue XML notation too.

Speaking of unwinnable RPG battles, many people view them as dull, predictible tropes that must be avoided. I like clichés and prefer to use them instead. The entire game is tongue-in-cheek and tries to acknowledge that the plotlines are silly, that there are major plot holes, that the game world is rather ridiculous and so on. Using clichés fit in wonderfully in that context.

Additionally, there’s one thing that makes an unwinnable battle even more acceptable in this game: you never lose anything (except for your precious time) if you fail a battle. You won’t spend any potions, any consumables – you won’t be tempted into using your precious elixirs (á la Final Fantasy) in vain.

I think that that is the primary reason that many people feel cheated by unwinnable battles: they invest too much into trying to win the battle, and only too late realize that the game is cheating and won’t allow them to win.

Top 10 Games of 2010 that I Haven’t Played

December 27th, 2010

It’s the end of the year, and that means loads and loads of top 10 lists of various kinds. Top 10 indie games of 2010, top 10 RPG games, top 10 porn movies, etc etc. I decided to go for something completely different: I’m going to list the best games of the year that I haven’t played…and why.

Let’s get on with it! Here’s a list starting from the game I’m most likely to play (but probably will not), to the ones I definitely will not pop into a console or PC.

10 – Minecraft

This weird little indie title has conquered the world. Everyone loves this one-man project that has sold millions and millions, and people keep making movies, build complete working ALUs (and CPUs) and generally muck around in this free-form 3D adventure game that doesn’t contain a storyline at all – instead it relies on emergent gameplay and the users’ imagination to create user-generated narratives.

Personally, I can’t be arsed with it. Yeah yeah, I get the idea: it’s fun to build with LEGOs, and this is essentially LEGO but with monsters, collecting things and exploration mixed in a gigantic bowl. The possibilities are endless. There’s countless hours of fun in this game. And that’s the problem for me. I don’t want countless hours of fun – I want a nice and entertaining game that won’t take too much time off my hands. And I definitely don’t want to learn how to play, or spend time finding out what exactly I want to do with all the possibilities in the game.

However, since it’s PC based and seems to be fairly easy to get into I still might, just might, try it sometime. I highly doubt it, though.

9 – Limbo

Limbo intrigues me. Who wouldn’t like an artsy black-and-white game about a little boy that gets stabbed to death and ripped in pieces over and over again? To me it sounds very much like the concept of experiencing the same day over and over again, until you figure out what you need to do to break the curse. Always liked stories like that. They contain a lot of subtext about guilt and punishment, as well as atonement.

However, from what I can see in the screenshots this game looks like it requires a lot of dexterity. I’m getting to old for that stuff – I’m not going to play a game that requires split second timing while solving puzzles and avoiding giant spiders and whatnot.

Not to mention that reviewers seem obsessed with that giant spider. As an arachnophobic, this game seems like a horror game to me. And not in a good way.

8 – Starcraft II

I was pretty excited about Starcraft II a while ago. I loved the first one; I liked the story and the general polish of the game, and the thought of a sequel made me smile. But once the sequel came out I found myself…disinterested. It’s like I know what it’s going to be like without having to play it.

I’ve loved RTS games, from Dune II to Warcraft to Total Alliance, Command and Conquer, World in Conflict, and many many others. But maybe it’s all come to an end, because I simply don’t feel like building another base, clicking and selecting a bunch of troops, and marching them off to their mostly-certain doom. Been there, done that.

I like strategy games, but turn-based ones are much more appealing to me. That’s why you don’t see Civilization 5 or King’s Bounty: Crossroads in this list of games I haven’t played.

7 – Mass Effect 2

Mass Effect was a nice game. Good dialogue, cute quests, nice gameplay. I thought I’d be playing ME2 as soon as it came out. But hell no, they’ve gone for a real-time approach in the battles. “We’re trying to reach a broader range of customers”, “we’re trying to appeal to both RPG fans and shooter fans”, “today’s games require a more intense experience” – whatever, I’m not playing it.

There’s simply no way that I will spend time on a game that requires motor skills. I even ditched Fallout 3 because it was too shooter-like for me. If I’m going to invest time in a game I demand that it rewards me with fun most of the time – not hard work and frustration. I guess I could go for a game that had auto-aiming and auto-hiding. A game in which your character’s attributes determine whether you hit or not, and whether or not you’re getting hit. And that would include not being able to aim better than your character – otherwise the difficulty would automatically be upped in order to compensate for most players’ agility.

But Mass Effect 2 is not that game.

6 – Red Dead Redemption

Grand Theft Auto was pretty fun. You rode around this 2D city, stole cars, avoided the cops and acted as a glorified errand boy. Then something happened… I think there was a GTA3, and some sequels to that one, and then there’s this cowboy game that people refer to GTA with horses. Oh right, Red Dead Redemption. As you can tell I’m not one of Rockstar’s biggest fans.

Cowboy themes are cool but I don’t care much for sandbox games these days. It’s too much freedom for my taste. I’m certain that the story is excellent in RDR but I have a suspicion that it’d be like wading through frustrating and boring bits just to see bits and pieces of excellent dialogue. If I have the choice I’d much rather watch some Clint Eastwood flick.

5 – Super Meat Boy

I know surprisingly little about this game, except that the protagonist is a dude with no skin, he is fairly pissed (maybe because of aforementioned lack of skin?) and that it’s a platform puzzler. I used to love platform games. I got 100 exits on Super Mario World, yo. But maybe the honeymoon’s over and the magic’s gone.

This game interests me in the same way Braid did. It’s a game I’d like to play and would like to like. But I tried Braid and I couldn’t feel gripped by it. I have the feeling that it’d be the same thing with this game, so to save myself time and effort I simply won’t try it.

Beside that, it’s been way too hyped. “Ooh, look at this quirky little indie title! It’s a masterpiece!” Bah, I don’t believe in masterpieces. There are good games, there are bad games, but anything that people try to sugar coat too much is bound to taste like crap when you get through the sugary outer shell.

4 – Rock Band 3

I’m not going to write a long piece about the qualities of this particular game. Instead I’ll just put it in four simple words: music games are passé.

Don’t get me wrong! They’re still awesome at parties and it’s still fun to mash buttons on plastic guitars. I just wouldn’t play it by myself anymore. And if I’m not going to play it except at rare occasions it’s not really worth buying, is it?

The songs are pretty nifty though. Everything from Dio and The Doors to Metric. Good setlist.

3 – Halo: Reach

Cinematic space opera shooter. A lovely combination of words. I think they’re relatively applicable to Halo: Reach. Unfortunately there’s one word in there that I don’t like. Can you guess which one?

Indeed, shooter.

It’s not that I don’t like action games. I do like them! And I do like the satisfied feeling of shooting down an enemy or watching a big explosion. The problem is just that they’re suited for the next generation. Sure, there are people in their 30s playing these games, but those people have been playing them continuously for years and years. I was pretty sucky at Quake 2 but I did play it online a bit. I played Unreal, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Half-Life 2 and many other games. But they’re all just too hard for me – I flail around like an epileptic with my mouse and send off rounds into everything but the enemies I’m supposed to hit.

I’m sure that I can train my skills if I put my mind to it. But why would I want to? I play games to relax and have fun.

2 – Call of Duty: Black Ops

Come on, after writing about Halo, do I really have to write anything at all here? Yes, come to think of it, I think I do. I can mention something about run-and-gun, cover-based gameplay. It’s natural to let shooters evolve into cover-based games, requiring you to add some strategy and planning into your gunning. The problem with that is that developers seem to assume a very high entry level skill.

Let me make an analogy with driving a car. I never got a driver’s license when I was young; no money, no one to drive with. Later on I was simply too lazy and didn’t see a need for it. Now, at the ripe age of 32, I’ve finally gotten my license…and I’m noticing an interesting thing: people who’ve been driving for years have no understanding about the problems a new driver have.

Driving a car requires a lot of coordination, decisions to make, and things to notice in the surroundings. I’ve had my license for some weeks but I still get…confused…if there are too many things happening all at once. Especially if I’m upset or irritated too. It’s pretty much like that with action games: people who’re used to the concepts of running, aiming and looking for cover all at once see all these things as natural, but for me it’s like trying to juggle while tying my shoelaces with my toes. Bloody hard, is what it is.

So, no thanks to Call of Duty. I have enough work, learning to become a better driver.

1 – World of Warcraft: Cataclysm

I tried WoW for a couple of days because my ex had a trial account and nagged me into giving it a shot. I created a shaman, killed innocent creatures, got killed a few times, met some annoying people and got my character up to level 10. That’s when I thought things would start for real.

And that’s also when my ex told me that I need to start playing with other people to get anywhere in the game.

I like cooperative gaming as much as the next person. I had a lot of fun in Gears of War (even though I suck), and I like the thought of grouping up to kill large horrible monsters. But WoW seems way too planned. I like the Diablo 2 multiplayer: get online, check for an open game, and go mess up Diablo’s rear end. Quick, simple, no socializing. In WoW people seem to want to talk about things and join guilds and plan raids and….snore.

Wake me  up when Diablo 3 gets here.

Gamex 2010 Stockholm

November 13th, 2010

Last weekend I attended Gamex in Stockholm. This was the first time in 14 years that I’ve been to a gaming event, if you’re not counting a LAN party 10-11 years ago. It was surprisingly fun even though I did expect more. More what? More of everything!

The place wasn’t too crowded; full of gamers and kids mostly. The main topics seemed to be Call of Duty: Black Ops, Kinect, game development educations, and various LAN gaming areas. Not terribly exciting but combined it made for an interesting experience well worth a visit during Saturday and Sunday.

I’m a bit jealous at all the game dev educations these days. Kids have it too easy! They get everything served in silver platters – myself, I had to get a C128 (since it has a simple built-in assembler) and learn the hard way how to construct simple C64 games in assembly. Bah bah, grumble grumble. But on the other hand it seems like many of the game dev educations are quite short and focused on giving students some basic help in producing code/art…but not a stable foundation in Computer Science or similar “real” topics. So I might be better off this way anyway.

One of the high points for me was seeing Diablo III. I have a slight tingling sensation in my nether regions after watching the gameplay video. It felt extremely familiar at once – and yet so strangely new. I can’t wait!

Another interesting thing was Kinect. Aside from the pet-the-cat game (whatever it’s called) I didn’t see anything worthwhile, but the pet-the-cat game completely fascinated me. I loved the idea of taking care of cute pets and petting them using the motion control. Not enough for me to buy an Xbox360 right now, but…maybe later.

Little Big Planet 2 was also fun to watch, but not very impressive. The same with Donkey Kong Country Wii, and various other games. However, I tried Quantum Theory which was…strangely appealing, despite being a Gears of War clone. I don’t like action games but it was pretty cool! Street Fighter IV was also very good indeed. I’m almost, ALMOST, considering getting a second console aside from my Wii.

I was hoping to see more “new” things and get inspiration for KarjaSoft projects. No luck there, even though I found an interesting tabletop tower defense thingy which made me think of online tower defense…. I also had a brief chat with a company providing an acheivements API. I think I kept their business card, so I shall have to see what can be done about that.

All in all it was a good time; not very productive but fun!

Finally some crappy pictures: a general overview picture, a pic of Diablo III gameplay, a stormtrooper presenting The Force Unleashed 2, a Lamborghini and a cosplay competition.

Quest Guidance, Wildhollow and Rise of the Argonauts

December 17th, 2008

My recent non-public release of Wildhollow (v0.2) has received some very interesting feedback. First of all, many seem to enjoy the art and the writing. Yayness! That’s actually pretty damn cool – I’ve been freetting over whether or not I’m a moron for putting so much emphasis on dialogue in the game. My reasoning is sound: Spandex Force received praise for its humorous writing, so this time I’m concentrating on much more of that. But it is a bit of a gamble. The audio received some mixed comments, but the only thing I really have to change is the typewriter sound in the dialogues. I agree that it’s a tad anachronistic in a fantasy game…but on the other hand I’ve added heavy metal songs for the dramatic scenes as well. What can I say, I like contrasts!

Other than that there are three worrying tendencies in the feedback: the minigames suck (I’m fixing that), the animal management needs to be improved (I’m fixing that)…and I have a sneaky suspicion that some people feel that there’s not enough guidance in the quests.

I’m all for easy-to-play games that one can pick up instantly. But Wildhollow requires you to read a lot of dialogue and deduce what to do based on that. I’ve done my best to have “quest hints” for each stage of the quests and have characters repeat important bits of information if they’re relevant to a quest, but there still might be a lot of exploration required to solve some of the puzzles.

I’m still on the fence whether or not this is a good thing. My initial response is “It’s a good thing, dammit! It encourages immersion and makes the quests flow naturally rather than appear forced.” But yesterday I played Rise of the Argonauts and now I’m not so sure anymore…

I consider myself a casual gamer, and Rise of the Argonauts is a pretty casual action RPG. I click some buttons, and the dude runs around like a scorched ferret, cutting and clubbing people all over the place. I love it! Epic violence, beautifully performed, that requires almost no skill at all. I don’t have to spend hours to learn how to do weird combos – they simply appear out of nowhere!

But all is not well in ancient Greece… The game gives almost no indication as to what I need to do next. I can’t be arsed to read all the text in an action game – I’m playing the game to spear people on my enormous barbeque stick! But if I skip too much I end up with my hero standing around looking dumb, and me sitting there feeling even more dumb. “So… Uh… What? What do I have to do now? Do I have to talk to someone? Is there a list of active quests? I don’t know what to do!”

Now, Wildhollow and Rise of the Argonauts aren’t comparable at all. Not in the very least, and not only because RotA is a frigging multi-million production. My choice to rely on text in Wildhollow is a major part of the design – it’s an integral part of the game. RotA’s focus is on action, with text added on. In Wildhollow you can quickly click around to try out things or talk to people; in RotA you have to physically move your character between the scenic vistas to see if this was where you needed to go…and retrace your steps if not. But at its core, Wildhollow relies on the player to explore to proceed – just like RotA.

I’ve been toying with the idea of adding graphic indicators for whom to talk to next, but… That feels cheap. It breaks the immersion. And it just might make the puzzles too easy. Another approach might be to make conversations pop up more often – make some NPCs initiate conversations on their own. That’s probably a better approach, but I’m still not sure if that would work. What I want is to make a game that’s easy to play and follow, but still not ridiculously simple or lacking in immersion.

Any suggestions for good games I ought to play to get inspiration for how to solve my dilemma?

No one?

Not a single suggestion?

Man, you suck.