I picked up a few neat games on Steam, and naturally that led to me picking up more neat games on Steam, and someone suggested I try out Dawn of War and that led to me grabbing a pack of like fifteen games including several I'd always meant to play and long story short I just tried out Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl.

Stalker is a game about a man in the wastes of radioactive Chernobyl who has lost his memory. He wakes up with very few possessions to his name – a leather jacket, a pistol, a knife, and a seemingly Godlike ability to rewind the flow of time.

The developers didn't really intend that last one. But when they put in the ability to save and reload anywhere, that's pretty much what they ended up with.

But oh boy howdy is he a lucky man! Because, see, the wastes of Chernobyl are deadly indeed. For one thing, they're vastly radioactive, and a few steps in an unfortunate direction can pretty much instantly kill you. They're infested with mutant wildlife which possesses the ability to leap out of bushes and also pretty much instantly kill you. And if the wildlife doesn't get you, the bandits might. The bandits are unlike the other menaces – at close range they actually do instantly kill you.

And then you hit "reload", only this time, you know where the bandits are.

Theory: Unlimited saving of your game is the worst thing that has ever been invented.

Alright. Not the worst. But it's well up there, and its grip on the PC gaming world is seemingly unshakable. Imagine the following series of events.

First, people start saving their game. Everywhere. Absolutely everywhere. Get out of a battle in good shape, save your game. Prepare to go into a battle, save your game. Run thirty seconds across the world, save your game. Take five steps, save your game.

Get out of a battle in bad shape, reload your game. After all, why cripple yourself? You'll do better next time. You can ace that battle. And you will ace that battle. And you'll ace the next one, too, with your excess of firepower. And the one after that. And then you'll go and complain on message boards that the game is too easy.

So what do the developers do?

Make the game harder.

And suddenly a new player can't beat the game without doing the tango. Every battle is instant death. Every mission has to be done twice – once to scout, once to win. Every enemy outpost is a neon gravemarker, with words engraved upon, reading "Here, Jakob, Son of Smyth, Reloaded his Game Twyce before Going The Othyr Way, since Somehow he was now Psychically Aware of the Enemys."

Does anyone enjoy this? Anyone, anywhere, ever?

And this is not a hard issue to solve! It's been solved! Halo did it. Ratchet and Clank did it. Much more recently, Brutal Legend did it. In none of these games is it possible to lose, and in none of these games is it possible to do the save/reload tango. Death is handled by resurrecting you at the last checkpoint or at the beginning of the current mission. "Reloading" is equivalent to "dying" in that it drops you back to the same spot. In R&C and Brutal you can always abort a mission, going back in time to just before you accepted it, and go do something else. You cannot fail – only try again – and thus there is no incentive to stepping your way through the game five perfect seconds at a time.

And I look at this simple elegant solution, and I cannot help but think: why is this not used for every game? Why are games still made where you are even permitted to save whenever you want? Why, when it is so vastly detrimental to game balance, when it is so positively and thoroughly inimical to actual fun?

What game mechanic does save-anywhere actually allow?

I still haven't come up with an answer to this.

Make The Number Bigger

2009, October 21st 12:10 AM

It's that time again! For those who were hoping I wouldn't go back to sidescrollers, you shall be happy. For those who were hoping I'd stay away from RTSes, you shall also be happy!

Download installer here
(optional zipped version)

This game was fated to be. I came up with the idea, almost identical to what you see here, a few days before the new official Experimental Game Project theme was announced. What was the theme?


Numbers it is.

Let me know what you think. Postmortem will be incoming, once I have some idea whether it was successful or not :D

Games Without Choices

2009, October 12th 4:20 PM

Thinking over my last entry, I've realized that – once again – I've lied to you.

Sorry. This will probably happen often.

I also plagiarized a little, but only a little.

"A good game is a series of interesting choices." It's attributed to Sid Meier, the genius behind Civilization. I am assuming you've heard of Civilization. If you haven't, get the hell out of my journal (and then come back once you've read that page.)

Sid Meier has a very specific view of gaming. Sid Meier does strategy games – turn-based strategy games, at that, where there is always a button you can press labeled "stop, I want to think for an indefinite period of time." In fact, in Sid Meier's games, usually that button doesn't exist. Instead, there's usually a button labeled "I'm done thinking, you can do things now."

In Sid Meier's games, he's completely right. Civilization without interesting choices is a terrible game.

What about Guitar Hero?

There aren't choices in Guitar Hero. Guitar Hero is a flat-out test of skill. You are either good enough or you aren't. (The actual definition of "good enough" depends strongly on the player.)

What about Braid?

There aren't really choices in Braid either. You're trying to learn how to solve the puzzles. There is no penalty for failure – you play the game inside a cheerful sandbox which is always willing to let you try again. In one sense, a random number generator could beat Braid, because it will eventually happen to solve all the puzzles . . . but it won't understand them, and that is the interesting part of Braid. Which, it must be pointed out, can only be experienced once, because then you understand it and you're done.

What about Samorost?

At first glance, Samorost may seem similar to Braid. I claim it is completely different. Samorost is not a puzzle game. There is no underlying logic to Samorost, there are no sets of rules to comprehend. Each screen is more of an experience than a level. In Samorost, the goal is the journey, not the individual puzzles – the puzzles are largely simple, but the journey is beautiful.

So I'm going to propose four rough categories.

* Strategy games, where your opponent fights you directly and must be defeated with skill and thought.
* Skill games, where your opponent is the game itself, which provides a series of increasing challenges to surpass.
* Puzzle games, where your opponent is your own limited understanding of the rules set in front of you.
* Journey games, where you have no opponent.

I'm going to have to mull on this one. Anyone got a counterexample to those four categories?

Mobius Post-Mortem

2009, October 6th 10:57 PM

So. Mobius.

If you haven't played Mobius, and plan to, stop reading and go play it, since I'm about to spoil the whole thing for you.

Still here?

The official theme this month was Failure. Usually, failure means you lose the game. Mobius is born out of the first idea I had regarding failure – a game where failure made you more powerful. Every time a character dies, the game counts up how many monsters you've killed and credits those to the person who "died". He becomes more powerful, but is penalized with having fewer HP, making him more likely to die in the future. If the difference in experience gets too great, a death can actually result in real, true failure, coupled with Game Over.

That is pretty much the entire game.

For a variety of reasons, I don't think it worked. And I could go into each one in detail, but to be honest, there's one which is big, and important, and vastly overshadows the others.

Real-time strategy games are intrinsically not very much fun.

They suck. They are boring. They are awful, awful games. I am prepared to defend this statement, but let me explain what I mean first.

There are genres of game which are intrinsically fun.

First-person shooters: you get to blow shit up. That's fun. You can run through an FPS in God Mode and still enjoy yourself, because, hey, kaboom! Kablammo! Look at all the shit I'm blowing up! Look at all the zombies/nazis/robots/robot-nazi-zombies I'm killing! This is so much fun.

Sidescrollers: The good ones are simply a joy to control. Look at Abe's Oddysee for the best example I know of, but a far more well-known example is Super Mario World. Super Mario World is fun, even when you've played it before. And that's not due to the inventive level design, or the "plot", or the challenge – even after someone's beaten it half a dozen times, they'll go back and try it again. It's simply enjoyable to play.

Anything involving leveling: We like leveling! People like to see a number that represents how awesome they are, and they like to see that number get larger. So you can have fun with RPGs even after you've beaten them once (plus it's like re-reading a good book), and you can enjoy Civilization 4 many many times, partially because your empire is getting huge and you're awesome. It's fun. You've done it before, but let's do it again, let's become big and strong for the third seventeenth one hundred and fortieth time.

There's one other aspect that can rescue an otherwise doomed game: Intelligent challenge. If fighting against your opponent is nontrivial, if it's not obvious what the right choice is in every case, then you can get a great game out of it. See: Civ4. See: Starcraft multiplayer.

And that's the crux. Starcraft multiplayer is a really good game. Starcraft singleplayer plot is really good. But nobody finds Starcraft singleplayer fun to replay.

Why? Well, it's simple. There are no interesting choices.

A good game is a series of interesting choices, and once you know how an RTS works, the choices aren't interesting anymore. You know the build order. You know the right units. And, let's face it, even if you don't know the build order or the right units, singleplayer RTSes can almost always be beaten with a few very basic steps:

* Defend your base.
* Build your economy.
* Create an army.
* Destroy the enemy.

That's it. That's the strategy. Now you can beat almost every singleplayer RTS ever made.

Now, you can draw this out quite a bit. Good singleplayer RTSes tweak the game subtly, many many times, so you never quite understand how it works. They disguise it as "unlocking new buildings and abilities" – in every level, you get More Stuff, changing the game balance and the optimal unit loadout slightly, and you only get the best stuff in the last level. Ever wondered why RTSes delay so much? Ever wondered why first-person shooters seem content to give you all their weapons about halfway through, or two thirds of the way through? It's because the RTS game has nothing more to offer you once it's shown you everything.

Because the game, itself, is fundamentally boring.

There are many ways I could criticize Mobius. It got less actual development time than any other game I've made so far, and the only reason it doesn't look far worse than Too Many Guns is because I've gotten a lot better at making games. The writing suffered, the art suffered, it could have used more variety, it could have used more testing and more balancing.

But the single most damning criticism is a very simple one.

Mobius is, unintentionally, a puzzle game, masquerading as an RTS . . . and once you solve the puzzle, you're left with a very simple RTS.

Single-player RTSes do not have interesting choices. Mobius does not have interesting choices.

And, thus, Mobius is not a good game.