Sunday, December 19, 2010

Tales of the Rampant Coyote: Exception Driven Game Play

Rampant Coyote has an excellent post on exception driven game play in RPGs which ties in rather nicely with my series on randomness in RPGs(and not for the first time). It's a must read if you often find modern PC RPGs lacking compared to their less refined ancestors.

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Sunday, April 11, 2010

PS3 Mahjong

There's a nice summary of PS3 mahjong games on Hardcore Gaming 101. He includes some helpful links to translation guides.

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Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Japanese Wizardry Reboot

Read all about it at 1Up.

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Saturday, June 13, 2009

L/N Review: Armored Core For Answer

Review of Armored Core For Answer
developed by From Software
for the Playstation 3
and released in North America in September 2008.

The charmingly titled Armored Core For Answer is From Software's most recent entry in their venerable mecha franchise and the second Armored Core release for current gen consoles. For Answer is a considerable improvement over its predecessor Armored Core 4, which introduced a faster paced but no less complex style of gameplay to the series. Part simulation, part action game, the Armored Core series demands commitment from the player and For Answer is no different. Player excellence requires both a fighter pilot's nervous system and a foolproof understanding of the scientific method.

The single player game consists of the player taking a customized mecha -- or AC in the game's parlance -- through a branching path of missions, unlocking more and more AC parts as he progresses. By the time the player has completed all of the missions, he will have played through the story mode multiple times and unlocked hundreds of parts with which to customize his ACs. More time will have been spent in the hangar fiddling with his ACs' multitude of components and conducting test simulations than will have been spent completing story missions. There are so many interacting parts and variables, so many possibilities, that real experimentation is required to understand how they all fit together. Hypotheses are formed, tested, rejected, and further refined until specialized engines of destruction are created for any potential scenario. The player can create optimized snipers, heavy tanks, lightning fast melee specialists, missile boats and more in countless variations. Proper planning in the lab will make some of the nail hard missions doable and may even make those coveted S Ranks attainable. And then, it is time for Hard mode.

When it comes time to actually pilot an AC, the speed of the ensuing action will be a shock to almost anyone who hasn't played Armored Core 4. But despite the frenetic pace, For Answer is still a simulation. An Armored Core is a machine with certain functions and capabilities, all of which are mapped to the control pad. There are three different varieties of boost, for instance. Normal boost is the standard mode of movement and doesn't consume any energy unless the AC is completely airborne. Quick boost is a rapid dash/dodge which consumes a chunk of energy. Finally, Over boost can be likened with piloting a drag racer and rapidly depletes both energy and kojima particles(KP). The consumption, power, and recovery rates of all these forms of movement and energy depend on the parts equipped, of course. The player must integrate all three types of movement while managing the resources they require. Energy reserves are also shared to power weapons and other functions while KP is also used to fuel the AC's shields and a few Kojima-powered weapons.

Movement and resource management are definitely the most complex parts of piloting an AC and are key to combat strategy, but they aren't the pilot's only concerns. An AC can be equipped with up to five weapons: left and right hand weapons, left and right back weapons, and a shoulder weapon. Spare weapons can also be stored to use if a hand weapon is depleted of ammo or is otherwise no longer needed. There is an array of weapon types powered by traditional ordinance, energy, and even Kojima particles. There are assault rifles, machine guns, bazookas, grenade launchers, energy blades, missiles, sniper rifles, plasma cannons, rail guns, and more. Thankfully, ACs have a degree of auto-targeting and lock-on with most weapons. Without auto-targeting, the high speed of combat would would make it almost impossible to hit anything.

The end result of all this complexity is that For Answer is one of the few games which really requires the player to dedicate two fingers on each hand to the controller's triggers. The game's button mappings are completely customizable, but the player should never have to take his fingers off the main boost buttons or left/right fire buttons. Although awkward at first, with practice the game's controls actually become quite natural. The initial awkwardness is due more to unfamiliarity than any design flaw.

Mechanically, then, the gameplay is excellent. The missions themselves are also nicely varied, without too many frustrating moments. Past Armored Core games usually had a few relatively unexciting but hard missions with strict time limits. Thankfully, in For Answer the hardest missions are those where the player must face off against one or more opposing ACs. The most prominent missions however are those where the goal is to eliminate one of the gigantic moving fortresses known as Arms Forts. These missions are quite dramatic, but unfortunately -- at least on Normal Difficulty -- are a bit anti-climatic. Most of the Arms Forts can be taken out with a few swipes of a melee weapon once within range.

Aside from the main campaign, there are also numerous 1 vs 1 arena battles against AI opponents. These will serve as good practice before venturing online. Online there are team and survival battles with up to eight players. Between matches, players can chat and trade schematics. Overall, the online experience is much improved over Armored Core 4, although there are still instances of lag in certain circumstances.

The narrative of For Answer is sparse to say the least. As in previous games in the series, For Answer features a completely silent protagonist. The plot unfolds through mission briefings, in-mission communications, and brief cut scenes between chapters. These elements combine to beautifully capture the moral ambiguity of war. There are numerous factions, none of which except for one is clearly good or evil. As a mercenary, the player will work for almost all of them and it will likely take multiple playthroughs for the player to piece together the goals of each. The understated and biased mission briefings contribute greatly to the moral fog of war. A mission targeting 100 million civilians sits innocuously next to the mission to save them. Moral judgments on the player's part must be made in a vacuum of emotion, because there are few emotional cues in the business of war. The few scenes which do draw on human emotion are quite poignant as a result. Aiding the narrative further is a beautiful musical score, solid presentation, and sometimes dramatic imagery. The mecha designs are unique and quite evocative.

Armored Core For Answer is one of the deepest games around. The hours will while themselves by with the player lost in its systems. The music and creative design will suck him in further and the plot will sustain interest and never fall flat. For Answer is one of the high points of the series.

On a normally distributed scale from 3 to 18, Armored Core For Answer scores:

17 for Ludology
15 for Narratology

For an explanation of my L/N scoring system, read my posts on the theory and the implementation.

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Street Fighter at Seven Thousand Feet

I love travel writing and this gaming related piece at Bitmob is no exception. Ah, sipping fine Darjeeling tea while playing street fighter in a shack in the Himalayas. Romantic isn't it?

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Tales of the Rampant Coyote: RPG Design: In Defense of ... Hit Points

Another great post at Tales of the Rampant Coyote. This one discusses the pros and cons of "hit points" in RPG design. The comments are especially interesting and include discussion of pen and paper classics like Rolemaster and Cyberpunk as well as new electronic games like Dwarf Fortress.

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Friday, May 08, 2009

Tales of the Rampant Coyote: RPG Design: That Which Is Not Forbidden...

Very interesting post at Tales of the Rampant Coyote which ties in directly with my concept of player input variance and open-endedness in RPGs. In discussing two of Gary Gygax's published pen-and-paper adventures:
But both Tomb of Horrors and Necropolis left a lot up to interpretation by the Dungeon Master (the person who "runs" the game). And I try and run my games by a guiding rule which, lamentably, tends to be ignored in more recent editions of the game, and ignored by players who are used to computer games: That which is not expressly forbidden is fair game to try.
And the conclusion:
The problem is that - for the most part - RPGs aren't made as anything resembling simulations. That's too difficult, and it is too hard to put the player on the kinds of rails that many designers prefer. So spells have very particular, extremely limited uses, and tend to be more of the "blow crap up" variety. Spells that provide knowledge, hints, or "intelligence" are subject to exploit in single-player games, as the information they provide to the player is persistent, even when the player reloads the game immediately to 'restore' the expended spell.

Our worlds are just too restrictive to allow this kind of play. But do they have to be?
They definitely do not have to be so restrictive. One way to deal with the issue is through random procedural content. Another is by limiting the ability to save/reload. Roguelike developers already care about these issues. I'm just waiting for the mainstream to catch on and it makes me very happy to see someone else talking about it.

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Thursday, May 07, 2009

Randomness and the Black Swan in RPGS(Part 2)

In the last two entries of this series I discussed the role of randomness in RPG task resolution mechanics. I also demonstrated the current shift toward increasingly deterministic resolution systems in electronic RPGs, and I explained why I felt this was a bad thing. Now it is time to don the mantle of chaos once again and discuss the other major set of RPG systems influenced by randomness, content generation systems. I will also introduce a couple of conceptual tools which may prove useful in my analysis.

In most P&P RPGs, randomness exerts its influence from the very beginning, at character creation. Anyone who has played any edition of Dungeons and Dragons is familiar with summing the results of 3 6-sided dice to determine a character's ability scores like strength, intelligence, etc. Hit points for both players and monsters are also determined by rolling dice. These are all simple ways in which randomness feeds into the content generation systems of RPGs. Simple randomness ensures that all orcs aren't exactly the same. The inclusion of this type of randomness also means that one player's 3rd level fighter may be more powerful than another player's. However, the greater the number of attributes with randomly determined parameters, the more likely most characters will trend towards average overall and the more likely most characters will excel in some area.

Random character generation was one of the first random elements of P&P RPGs to be removed from electronic RPGs. Aside from licensed D&D games and roguelikes, few electronic RPGs still have random elements in their character generation systems. In many electronic RPGs there isn't even such a thing as character generation. This is entirely logical for story-based games and games without much in the way of randomized content generation. But, when the challenges to be met aren't predetermined, why shouldn't an RPG utilize randomness from the very beginning to vary the game experience?

But when most people think of random content generation, they think of randomly generated environments, encounters, and rewards. All of these elements were present in D&D in the 1970s. In general, every encounter area was expected to have an associated wandering monster table. The DM made periodic wandering monster checks, and if one occurred, the appropriate table was consulted. This allowed the DM to generate encounters on the fly while the party was travelling long distances or camping. Wandering monster checks could also be used to punish players for making foolish decisions like making a lot of noise in a dungeon. The AD&D Dungeon Masters' Guide included encounter tables for all types of wilderness terrain and dungeon levels. There were also tables to generate treasure on the fly for these and other encounters. Each monster type had an associated treasure type with an associated set of tables for randomly determining what treasure a monster of that type might have in its possession. There was a very slight chance that even a weak creature could have a powerful magical item.

With the release of the AD&D Dungeon Masters' Guide in 1978, random content generation was taken to the next level with the inclusion of a complete system for randomly generating dungeons. Level layouts, environmental details, tricks, traps, treasure, and enemy encounters could all be generated on the fly by the DM. The inclusion of such a system says volumes about the way at least some players played P&P RPGs. It is also some indication that, at least for some players, the mechanics of D&D were fun in and of themselves.

Of course, it should be mentioned that the Dungeon Master's Guide explicitly states that the content generation charts contained therein are not to be taken as Law. The DM can freely ignore any result he feels will unbalance the game or which he simply doesn't like. However, potentially unbalancing random events are ameliorated somewhat by the flexibility of a game played between humans. If the players suffer a stroke of bad luck and encounter a high level wandering monster they have a practically infinite number of options available to them, limited only by their creativity. They can scatter in all directions, they can describe in detail their attempts to hide or escape, etc. The DM can then reward quick thinking and good ideas. Contrast this with early electronic RPGS where the only option besides fighting was selecting RUN from a battle menu and it is easy to see why the range of random encounters might have been restricted.

Now I would like to introduce two concepts: content generation variance and player input variance, hereafter referred to as CGV and PIV. CGV is a measure for the range of output possible by the content generation system given a fixed set of parameters. CGV is easy to quantify in a video game because it is essentially an algorithmic function with specified parameters. PIV is harder to quantify because it always involves human input. Sometimes, such as with menu systems, the human input is very restricted, but many modern RPGs are much more open ended than that. In addition, PIV is also a result of the way in which human input is processed and translated into game actions. PIV takes into account randomness within the game's task resolution systems(see Part 1 for more details), for instance. So, PIV is defined as the range of results from all possible player actions in a given game situation. PIV will remain a fuzzy concept, but will suffice for our purposes. A P&P RPG played between humans will be considered as having maximum values for both CGV and PIV.

Next time I will continue the discussion of CGV and PIV. I will discuss how they relate to one another and how they have changed over the years in RPGs.

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