Game Case Study Update: Kaos War and Damon Grow

So recently I wrote a long, rambling post talking about the Kaos War MMORPG and some of the mistakes that founder Damon Grow makes during their journey (as documented by a Games.net video series).

What ever happened with Damon and Kaos War?

Kaos War never came out. Not a big surprise, you say? Get this: Damon Grow has pivoted successfully and is now leading a small dev team at Superstar Games, which has investments from a number of notable groups, including lead backer and NFL legend Joe Montana.

Grow has clearly done well, even if he hasn’t blinded us with brilliance. I’m pleased to see that he’s managed to make the most of the unique attributes we saw on Kaos War: the passion, the communication skills, the chutzpah.

His big project when he launched Superstar was a VR football game, though. On the website, there’s not a hint of that project, although if you search around you can find video and news coverage. Instead, the site touts several modest casual VR games.

That, too, I think can be read two ways. Either you’ll think he never finishes his projects, or he’s learned to bite off something he can actually chew. Good luck, Damon. It’s a tough industry.

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Gaming Your Life: What To Do When Someone Parks Like a Jerk?

you park like an assholeGame writing and game design incorporate concepts that can be applied to regular life quandries. Here’s an example: recently I came across a question at Quora that cried out for a good gaming kind of strategy. The question: “What are some clever ways to mess with people with expensive cars who consistently park in two parking spots?”

Obviously, this applies to people with cheap cars too, and people who park across the line rather than trying to hog two spots. Basically, anyone who parks like a jerk.

The answer: I flip their wipers up.

This draws attention to the car and makes it stand out from all the other cars in the lot, which is what we want. The car then looks like it’s got its hands in the air, waving.

And hopefully it makes the driver think about what they might’ve done to warrant such attention. It’s quick, it’s non-destructive, and if the driver was forced to park that way because of someone else’s crappy parking job, well, no harm done. I’m hoping that more people use this method until it becomes the common way of notifying bad parkers that they have been seen and found wanting.

Not all cars/trucks have flippable wipers, but most of them do. It’s a convenience for the owner, who can replace the wiper refill when it’s flipped.

I’ve seen a number of different approaches to this problem, and most are a little more elaborate and honestly less effective. For example, Amazon has a variety of parking notes and fake tickets which you can keep in your car and leave on problem vehicles. And Lifehacker has highlighted the You Park Like an Asshole folks, who sadly seem to be out of business now. These methods are useful in communicating your displeasure, but I think it helps when the driver knows that others have been walking by their atypical car and scoffing at their parking job.

The gaming principles at work here are mostly social. Just like Ebay ratings or bad player reports. Social pressure – or even the possibility of social disapproval – is a powerful motivator. A lot of people will misbehave if they think no one’s paying attention or can rationalize themselves into thinking that “I’m not hurting anyone.” Knowing that their car has been the object of speculation and mockery can definitely influence a bad driver’s behavior.

And if you ever want to take it to the next level and report a bad parker or bad driver over the internet, there are several possibly defunct apps and a website for doing exactly that. These tools are definitely a satisfying way to share your woes and laugh at the ridiculous antics of others. And they make a permanent record of the bad behavior that’s linked to the driver’s license plate number. However, the chance of the report making it to the driver in question is pretty dang low at this point.

Anyhow, here’s the original Quora post. If you like it, please vote it up and share it with your friends!

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Unemployed men are wasting away playing videogames, says CSM

videogame-unemployed-menApparently the Japanese aren’t the only ones struggling with listless and purposeless young men. Who are these guys?

In Japan, as described in this aptly titled 2011 Kotaku article “The Depressing World of Unemployed Nerds,” there’s a growing problem of young males who have effectively dropped out of society and are relying on the positive feedback of videogames and paid chatgirls to satisfy their basic social needs.

And now a new academic study is being mentioned by the Christian Science Monitor as discovering a similar problem in the United States, with these slacker boys polling as generally happier and more content than their peers. I think it’s important to note here that their peers are guys with a high school diploma or less, so it’s not too surprising that they find their warehouse or Walmart jobs uninspiring.

I think you could argue this two different ways. One, it’s pretty sad that these guys are happy to game their way into total oblivion and irrelevance. This is definitely not the way you want to see people adapting to 21st Century challenges, especially when employers (many game companies among them) are seeing talent gaps in a lot of key fields. The counterpoint, two, is that perhaps these sad slackers are getting valuable therapy from their videogame exploits, keeping their minds sharp in virtual environments, like the kid from The Last Starfighter, until the right job or inspiration strikes them and they spring into action. Maybe these guys would be psychopaths or suicides without videogames.

Opposites? Maybe. Or maybe it’s a combination of the two.

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Do You Watch Your Friends Play Games?

Not everybody enjoys watching others play videogames, just like not everybody enjoys others play sports. There’s something about games that demands that hands-on experience.

Of course, a big part of it depends on the style and personality of the person you’re watching. If you’re a stealth gamer, you probably wouldn’t enjoy watching a brawler barrel through levels, for example.

But assuming you’re watching someone who plays like you do, or perhaps faster than you do (!), do you enjoy watching them play? Or are you itching for them to get an urgent call from their significant other?

I don’t love watching gameplay video, but I’m watching theRadBrad on Youtube right now. He’s got a pretty good style, he moves quickly, and he’s got a friendly, funny energy to him.

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Videogame Indictment: Dragon Age Inquisition

A Dragon Age Review with Bugs Attached

Been playing this popular game on PS4 recently and man, am I disappointed. I really want to love it, but instead I just think about how Bioware shipped this thing about six months before it was finished, with some bad design decisions baked in. I’m also a bit irate to see how badly they’ve evolved in the storytelling process while Bethseda has leapfrogged them handily with titles like Skyrim and Fallout.

It looks and sounds lovely and there’s clearly a heapton of backstory and thought. The characters are interesting and well-acted, when you can figure out what they’re saying*. You can see that, as Ray Muzyka said in a Wired interview, they “aggressively checked out” Skyrim and tried to borrow some concepts. Some of them have good conflicts with each other while all pursuing common goals in their own ways. All of this merely adds to the disgust and tragedy of this buggy, burdened, burdensome game: I think of all those game developers who poured their hearts into this damned box and all they (and we) got for their inspired labor was a shining turd.

What’s Broken in Dragon Age: Inquisition

The key bugs that annoy me in DA:I are clear A-class bugs in combat, especially in the time-stopping Tactical View, which is a necessity in tough fights, when the AI’s decisions can quickly decimate your party (and frankly, there’s really no AI that can handle a tough fight as well as a person can). What kind of bugs? Party members going completely AFK. I give them an order, and they just stand there. Forever. I have to pop out of Tactical View into real-time and jump with that character to wake them up. Why? Who knows. It might be a terrain issue; I have seen party members fall through gaps and occasionally stick on terrain until their deaths.

Oh, did I mention that the Tactical View camera traverses the terrain like a person? So when you want to attack an enemy from up on a rock ridge, you have to guide the damned thing down a walkable path to target the enemy. And then back up again anytime you want to check your guys or adjust them. And Maker help you if you’re fighting in a narrow gully with trees roofing it. The camera will hop around like a bullfrog on crack as you move it, and positioning a spell effect area precisely is hopeless when you can’t get high enough or low enough due to ceilings and obstacles. Bioware, here’s a hint: Please don’t do detailed collision detection with the damned camera. Make stuff translucent when the camera goes through it. It can be done. It has been done. Please.

Or I hit the button to switch characters and nothing happens. I can only control one character until I finish the fight or get to a menu somehow. I tell someone to stay out of danger, and they inexplicably start wandering. (Yes, I am double-tapping on the target location to see the little shield icon for HOLD POSITION.) Rubberbanding foes that teleport across the area in Tactical View (no, they weren’t being yanked by heroes’ grapples). And yeah, it’d be nice if the AI didn’t cast fire spells on the fire demons… sigh. The latter is a rarity in RPGs, I know, but one that wouldn’t be all that hard to code.

The menu system is a mess too. Inventory’s complicated if powerful. But you can’t equip items in the shop interface, which means you have to hop in and out of menus to buy an upgrade (buy new item, switch to inventory, unequip old item, equip new item, switch, sell old item). Nor can you discard item crafting patterns (“schematics”) for useless low-level items; instead you have to scroll through an ever-growing list of junky schematics, comparing their numbers, to find the good stuff. Feels like work.

And when you’re crafting items, you can’t compare the proposed item’s attributes with what you’re currently using. I actually wrote a bunch of numbers down on paper to figure out whether crafting was a good use of my resources. Uhhhh… really? Feels like work.

The final insult: you also can’t switch a character between melee and ranged weapons during a fight. I certainly understand penalizing a character with a delay as they swap weapons, or keeping someone from swapping between a dozen weapons like Duke Nukem, but utter inability to switch between a bow and a sword? Unheard of. This from the company whose heritage extends back to the original tactical party RPG, Baldur’s Gate. Just freaking shameful.

So Many Unique Lootz That You Hate Lootz; So Many Quests That You…

The game also manages to make loot uninteresting. There are so many unique items that you never know when you’ve found something cool. Instead, everything’s different and 99% of it is junk. (Granted, the latter’s true of any real RPG.) As a result, you don’t care about anything you pick up.

In Skyrim, you run across dozens of iron swords. When you get another iron sword, you immediately know it’s junk. But when you see an mithril sword of cleaving, that name gives you an obvious tip-off that it’s your lucky day. Also, it glows because it’s magic and you light up like Christmas.

But no, in DA:I, everything’s got a different name and you can’t see it physically unless you take the special effort to pop through a few menus and equip it to view it inventory. All you see is a loot item that, when opened, shows a list of the items within. Rarity is indicated by color (blue and purple being rarest), but there are useless purple items and good common items. And crafted items are generally the best of all, which means new item designs (“schematics”) can be valuable, but you’ll have to drag your butt to a crafting station to figure it out.

So it all sits in your bag until you have a chance to sort through it. Kind of like your bank statements. Congratulations, Bioware. You’ve managed to nerf one of the primary joys of RPGs.

I think they went the opposite (and wrong) direction of Fallout 4 on loot in this game, a grave error. In Fallout 4, you don’t even have to press a button to see what’s inside a container — you just look at it and the text appears showing contents. This avoids the annoyance of opening empty chests when you’ve doubled back on your path. Bethseda’s gotten rid of the opening action entirely.

There’s a minor innovation in the form of a war room where you can commit points to unlock abilities (like larger inventories) and new map areas. You can also send your war council on errands to solve problems and expand your influence, giving a nice impression of a larger international conflict (and challenges of leadership) that compliments your individual adventuring. Too bad the UI is tedious to navigate and the tasks apparently can be completed in almost any order, with few conflicting tasks and no time-dependent tasks. The UI is a lot like scrubbing a scene in a pixel-hunting adventure game; it’s littered with icons that are irrelevant, and positioning the cursor is onerous. Feels like work. A little snap-to-POI algorithm would go a long way here.

And of course there are meaningless quests galore. Find the pisspot you lost in the Sewers of Despair? Sure, I’ll do that in hopes of getting 5 gold and another item that looks like all the other junk in my bag. Heck, maybe it’ll be a multi-part quest. Love those.

Other Gamer Grousing

In addition, the multiplayer mode is dumbed down and unstrategic. No Tactical View, and the one time I tried it, my friend and I were killed repeatedly in the first scenario such that it felt hopeless.

*And as mentioned earlier, the dialog is oddly oblique and obtuse. All of the heroes are apparently politicians. No one says, “I hate demons and I want to see them all dead.” Instead they say something like “Demons are offensive to the Maker. When I am inclined to consider action, I find my aims aligned with the Maker.” Uhhh, right. As a purported wordsmith, I admire the artistry here, people, but this all feels like work.

I will give unadulterated praise to one feature of the game, though. There is a throne that you can sit in to decide what happens to various prisoners and defeated NPCs. The options are thought-provoking and I appreciated the effort to create a “heavy is the head that wears the crown” effect, presenting the player with moral decisions.

Having a horse on call to speed through maps is good. (Also in Skyrim.) I did genuinely enjoy the tavern songs by Raney Shockne, which were pleasant and also distinctive. I’d have to say this is one thing that Inquisition did better than Skyrim.

And the skill trees and the skills themselves are quite cool and generally make a clear difference in combat. Also in Skyrim, and probably the one thing that kept me going as far as I did. In retrospect, maybe I should’ve just played Skyrim.

Storytelling is Not an Afterthought, People

Especially in a text-heavy RPG. And text-heavy is one of the problems: Bioware continues to think that quantity is a substitute for quality. Just like older Bioware games such as Planescape: Torment, the landscape is littered with characters who want to tell you their life story, but the core experience is buried under all that excess… especially when most of them speak in that same constipated manner I mentioned earlier.

Maybe the name Inquisition itself should’ve been a warning. Any game that chooses a title so closely tied to an oppressive, murderous, and inhuman movement as the Spanish Inquisition is going to be a little tone-deaf.

I don’t want to know why the gardener is sending me on this FedEx quest to take his stupid broken trowel across the treacherous swamp; I want solve the mystery of my hero’s talent and beat the big boss. And when I don’t get tapped into that big conflict in a regular and meaningful way, I feel like the game is simply throwing chores at me while I grind my character toward advancement. I could be playing a game. In my leisure hours, why should I bother with all this work?

I’m sure an apologist would mention the rifts you have to close across every new map. Each rift is a reminder of the main quest and your special ability, and they do spawn new and tougher creatures as you progress. (Sometimes well beyond your ability, and much tougher than anything else in the map, with no indicator of difficulty.) But there’s a real lack of panache in the presentation. For example, I ran into a new beastie at one rift – a Pride Demon about forty feet tall and tough as nails. But no one in town was talking about him, and none of my party reacted to this obvious challenge. Opportunity missed.

A Modest Proposal for Books in RPGs

Actually, both Skyrim and Dragon Age fail with the many books you encounter in their worlds. These are amazing opportunities to enrich and entertain the player, but instead the developers are treating them like easter eggs, fodder for the completists. FAIL. How come these books almost never have anything related to the current quest that you’re on? How come they rarely mention anything useful or funny about characters you have encountered? Weapons or spells you’re using? Journals of people who are facing the same decisions as you are? How come we never start a quest or finish a quest by reading a book? How’s that for a way of telling the player that these things are just window dressing?

Here’s my simple proposition: make these damned things fun. I don’t want to read 14 volumes about ancient lore, in random order. I want to see the same number of books around, but 75% of them are dull-colored so only the completists will read them. Or maybe they’re even empty: when you pick them up the game says “You’ve read this one before in school” or “Yet another advice book on how think positively about the bubonic plague.” However, the brightly-colored books are always funny or relevant to your immediate situation. Make it so, people!

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WTF, WWF?

Zynga’s Words With Friends. I’m a word guy, obviously, and I can’t help playing this game against friends and strangers. It’s crowdsourced word puzzles, really.

But why, Zynga? Why does your QC have to be so utterly lousy? Why are you so hellbent on proving you couldn’t care less about this marquee property?

Here’s example #1: The word of the day recently was “whore.” Inappropriate word to feature, obviously, and also not exactly a word of special interest. Today’s word is “oi”. The definition: “oy.” Not exactly something you’re going to tweet out to all your friends.

IMHO, Zynga has the WOTD on “randomize” without anybody on staff bothering to eyeball it for the .5 seconds it requires to pick something fun and family-friendly.

Example #2: the definition and example sentence for the word KEEF. Do you know what a KEEF is? I didn’t, and here’s what WWF had to say about it.

wtf wwf

Thanks for nothing, WWF and Zynga.

P.S. It’s the resin glands of cannabis. Bonus drug reference for you.

More examples in the gallery below. Words With Friends is just a hot mess of fail.

 

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Brain Game Answers

As promised, our quiz answers…!

  1. Mount Everest was still the tallest, but we just didn’t know it yet. Also known as Mount Chomolungma or Sagarmatha.
  2. The child was born before the founding of the United States, which wasn’t really that long ago.
  3. Once, and then it becomes 20, not 25. Although we’re also accepting the answer “infinitely” — because you could argue that you can always subtract 5 from different instances of 25. I mean, if you have 25 beans and you subtract from it, you can still encounter 25 pennies the next day.
  4. The child lives in the southern hemisphere, where the summer comes in December.

Hope you enjoyed. Happy summerishness to you!

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Rapidfire Review: Fret Nice

Game Write-ups on Ritalin

Hello, game writer central denizens. We’re rolling out a quickie review tonight of the PS3 demo Fret Nice. For the time-constrained gamer, game demos are an ideal way of assessing the longevity of a videogame before the actual purchase. Game demos aren’t always a perfect reflection of the final product, but they’ll always capture the core gameplay, art style, and feel.

Wanna find out what a game writer and game designer thinks of a demo? You’re in the right place.

Fret Nice is a charming sidescroller with some unique art direction. The hook? It’s music-themed and you use a guitar controller to move your character through the level. Playing the right riffs zaps monsters and tilting the guitar triggers leaps.

I wanted to like this quirky game. Sadly, Fret Nice didn’t really impress me beyond the initial visuals. Here are the drawbacks:

  • I couldn’t figure out the correspondence between monster types and the riffs I was supposed to play. I sense there’s a cool gameplay mechanic here, but I couldn’t see it visually. As you start to play, a dialog bubble appears above your guitar-toting avatar, which looks a lot like the bulbous baddies. Notes look like eyes; if you play a lot of notes, your dialog bubble looks like a multi-eyed monstrosity… match the eyes and you zap the beast. This is a sly concept, but in practice I couldn’t get it to correspond. For a simple DLC game like this, it’s got to be obvious.
  • You can only play riffs when airborne. This is annoying and unintuitive. Save that for advanced levels, not for your game demo.
  • Your riffs sound horrible, like plunking on a toy keyboard. C’mon, guys. You’ve got all the power of this console, which is pumping out a plucky soundtrack, and you can’t synch that to something that sounds halfway cool? Gameplay fail. In a game visually and physically centered around music, playing riffs should be utterly gratifying, mirroring and amping up the audio already accompanying the game. It should rock! You should want to play riffs even when baddies aren’t on screen.
  • The controls suck. Tilting the guitar to jump is a funny idea at first, and it gets old after about the fifth jump. You can play the game with a regular controller, and you can probably reassign the jump function to a guitar button, but the mercury switch should not be the default.

Fret Nice is a Tecmo game for Playstation Network and Xbox Live Arcade.

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The Janus Fund Fee Game

janus fund feeThe Janus Performance Fee Proposal

The Janus fund fee (“performance fee”) recently pitched by Janus Funds is a good example of gamesmanship for higher stakes than seen in your typical RPG or RTS. We don’t usually talk about financial matters here at Game Writer Central, but I believe that it’s important to recognize game elements in all environments, especially when those elements are subtle and insidious.

Just like the manufactured financial instruments that were a large part of our recent economic meltdown, mutual fund fees are arbitrary structures that exist only on paper. Like the rules of a board game, mutual fund fee rules don’t come from any governing body — they’re agreed-upon between the shareholders and the fund management, and they can be changed by a simple vote. Like the Janus fund fee that’s being proposed for their Janus Forty, Janus Fund, Janus Global Opportunities, Janus Overseas, and Janus Twenty Funds.

Janus Funds wants to change the usual percentage management fund fee to a base fee plus or minus a performance-based amount. If they beat their benchmark index (an unmanaged group of similar investments), they get more money; if they don’t they get less.

The Janus Fee: Fair or Fail?

This sounds great until you realize that Janus is never going to pitch something that’s not in their best interests. A little investigation on the Janus fund fee proposal reveals it isn’t really in the shareholder’s best interests:

  • A simple Google search yielded this article from Smart Money that cites a NYU/Fordham study showing that performance-based fund fees actually caused fund managers to take abnormal risks. Unsurprisingly, when given short-term goals, people often sacrifice what’s best for all to grasp at the dangling carrot. If you ask me, this kind of thinking infects Wall Street in general: CEOs sacrifice the company’s well-being for quarterly earnings, because the CEO plans to cash out ASAP and ride his golden parachute away from the smoking ruins.
  • Benchmark indexes are by nature mixed bags. They’re representative of a certain slice of the market, and they contain dogs as well as stars. Although it’s true that many managed funds struggle to beat the S&P 500 on an year-over-year basis, sector indexes are often much more motley. Here’s an example: Janus Overseas Fund is benchmarked to an index that it consistently beats. Of the eight sample periods shown on Janus Funds’ own website, the Janus Overseas Fund beats the index six of eight times, including the entire past decade.

So… this is some interesting game design. If you’re an investor, do you want to change the game rules so that the game scalps up to 15% more off your hard-earned winnings with that kind of frequency? Or do you vote to keep the rules the same?

Of course, if fund management takes abnormal risks and performs badly, the fund could perform worse than its historical tracking and be penalized by the Janus performance fee. But if the Janus fund fee is ticked down, so are your earnings. That’s a lose-lose game, with you holding the bigger share of the risk.

Don’t Play Hooky On Fund Fee Proxies: Your Power Is Your Own

It’s my opinion that we Americans as a nation often fail to look out for our own best interests because it often requires a bit of painful research and thought. Whether it’s investigating the track record of a politician or taking the time to vote on school board elections, we don’t like doing our homework. And as a result, we get “gamed” by the entities we’re supposedly overseeing.

Keep this in mind the next time you get a boring fund fee proxy statement in the mail. If they’re asking for your signature, you have power. Signing blindly isn’t as dramatic as kneeling in fealty to a demonic end-game boss, but the consequences can be more dramatic for you and your family.

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Today’s Prose Poem

A Bit of Marketing Writing

Writing about a light is today’s little gem. I bring you a prose poem by the good, if perhaps inebriated, people behind “Safety Warning Flashing Lamp”:

Especially for the children,

blind men

old men

in the morning

or evening

and the cloudy

day

when the bright is

not enough,

to increase

more safety.

writing-lite

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