tempest in a teacup

the pointless musings of a strange recluse

Ass backwards

I wonder when it was that developers stopped listening to good players?

Yes, I’m aware that’s a generalization – not all developers do this. However, the developers of the games that I play most often seem to, and that’s not a good thing at all.

Gaming has become a lot more popular than it was when I was a kid – everyone and his mom seems to have an Xbox, whether to play the latest iteration of Madden or the FPS flavour of the month. The immediate effect of this is that pretty much every developer has been wondering how to appeal to this newly-expanded gaming demographic. The more insidious effect has been that they’ve started dumbing down their games to appeal to this demographic.

As an example, let’s take a look at Team Fortress 2. Simply put, they removed tons of stuff that had been present in TFC in order to simplify the game and make it appeal to Joe Gamer whose only experience with FPSes up to that point was probably Halo. This included several advanced techniques like concussion jumping, several weapons (super shotguns, railguns, nailguns, all the grenades), as well as weapon-specific ammunition and armor. Even some of the seemingly innocent changes caused the game to be dumbed down – for instance, the fact that friendly fire is off and you don’t collide with your teammates makes it easier to spy check and thus severely limits the Spy’s usefulness. And let’s not forget the obvious – critical hits and random damage spread.

The result is that the game sort of works if you’re playing it casually, but as soon as you try to get better at it you start to run into problems. High level play in TF2 involves class limits out of necessity and only uses a small set of maps since most of the game modes aren’t particularly suited to it. The end result is that TF2’s high level scene is markedly smaller than that of other games like CS and Quake.

Not enough? Let’s look at another recent Valve game, Left 4 Dead. This game was sold primarily as a co-op game, and in that respect it works decently, although the weapon balance is rather poor. However, Valve also saw fit to add a Versus mode, which was plainly not designed with high-level play in mind, much like TF2. The survivors are blatantly overpowered, with all sorts of abilities at their disposal – this is in addition to the poorly balanced weapons. A team of skilled survivors all wielding autoshotguns is pretty much guaranteed to make it to the safe room most of the time. This situation didn’t really improve in the sequel – while the infected did get buffed a little, the survivors gained several more abilities, such as defibrillators to bring dead teammates back to life, bile grenades to distract hordes, grenade launchers and high-damage melee weapons.

The effect of this on high level play is that various player-developed mods need to be used to achieve any semblance of balance at all. And these mods basically remove several item types from the game and reducing the influence of the AI director in order to achieve this goal.

Now you might ask, “but SonicTempest, aren’t games supposed to be fun? Why are you treating them like SERIOUS BUSINESS?” To which I would reply: “What do you mean by fun?” What someone finds fun isn’t going to be fun for everyone else. Some people have fun messing around in 32-player low-gravity mario_kart servers in TF2, whereas others have fun learning the ins and outs of a game and mastering its nuances of its ruleset. Note also that someone’s perception of fun changes over time – at one point I enjoyed playing Pyro on 32-player instaspawn Dustbowl as much as any casual player out there. However, after 300 or so hours of playtime, about half of which have been spent playing Soldier almost exclusively and trying to learn the class as best as I can, my definition of fun has changed, based on the simple fact that my skill level has increased. This change has also led me to realise that playing TF2 in pubs is becoming less and less fun for me, simply because of all the things built into this game that hinder high level play.

The conclusion, therefore, is that developers need to design their games with high level play in mind first and foremost for them to remain interesting. Most people’s response to this approach is that it ‘alienates new players’ – which is a premise with which I disagree quite strongly. Look at games like Starcraft and Quake. These games have very high skill ceilings which is the main reason their high level play scenes continue to thrive even today (keep in mind that these games came out ten years ago!) Yet is either game any less fun at low levels of play? I played Quake and Quake III Arena deathmatch back when the games were new, and I was by no means a good player, yet I still had fun with both games. Similarly, I was terrible at Starcraft, but this didn’t diminish my enjoyment of my weekly matches with my high school friends one bit. And these games are still great fun to play, even today – I played Starcraft with my fellow interns while I was in India back in 2006, and even though I still sucked at it, it was every bit as entertaining as it was back in 1998.

Will I be able to say the same about TF2 or L4D ten years from now? I doubt it.

PS: I spent most of this post talking about FPSes, but this is something that’s becoming prevalent across all genres. A little game called “King of Fighters XII” comes to mind…and some might even say that Street Fighter IV falls into this category.

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Things about TF2 that need to change

Just some thoughts I’ve been meaning to pen down for a while. They’re rather long, so I’ve hidden them behind a jump.

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Oh hey I forgot I had a blog

Well, not really…I just haven’t had much to write about. But now I do! And guess what, it’s about TF2 again. Namely this.

In this update we can see the results of some of the playtesting that league players have been involved in. Well, sort of. Since I’m lazy I’ll just C&P some stuff I wrote about the update at the Orochinagi forums, and add a bit more for clarity.

Sandman nerf

Stuns are still annoying, but at least they can’t take out ubers now. Although I will lol the next time a Sandman scout tries to tag me and gets one-shotted by my rocket. Although chances are I’ll end up getting critstunned by some jackass who decided that it was a good idea to switch his loadout now that the Sandman doesn’t take away his double jump.

Critboost on intel cap

Pretty stupid idea if you ask me. If you want people to attack more on CTF maps, then make turtling harder/less rewarding than it is now – don’t give a team that happens to cap once the ability to shit out instant death for ten seconds.

Every time I play ctf_turbine I inevitably imagine how much more fun the game would be if there were no engineers on either team.

KOTH mode

Fun. I like it more than arena since it emphasises the best part of the game (capturing and holding territory). Maps like koth_nucleus don’t really have any unassailable sentry spots either so defense depends more on how good your other classes are. I think koth_viaduct is way too small for 24 players though – my box has trouble keeping 60fps on that map and the point turns into a spamfest very quickly.

ctf_sawmill

Haven’t actually played it in a real match yet, but I like how 1) your spawn is BEHIND the intel room, making it easier to attack and 2) the intel room is tiny, making it hard to maintain a sentry down there. Kind of sad that they cut off the paths that go by the waterfall though.

Autoreload

Handy for certain classes (Soldier, Demoman, Scout) not so much for others (Spy). Thankfully there’s a cvar to turn it on and off so you can make it class-specific.

I haven’t tried cp_yukon yet mainly because the players on the servers I tend to play on seem to have a vendetta against 5CP maps, even though I think Granary and Badlands are probably among the best maps the game has to offer. Every time RTV comes up everyone votes for Goldrush, Dustbowl or (on particularly bad days) Pipeline :(

Another somewhat depressing thing this update has taught me is how so incredibly few people actually know how to play Soldier effectively. Valve inadvertently broke rocket jumps for a full weekend when they tried to undo some self-damage changes they had made to the Demoman. The ability wasn’t taken away, but the damage received by the Soldier was reduced, thereby reducing the distance he could propel himself. Normally simple jumps like going straight up to Well’s third floor from the second point, or jumping onto Gravelpit C from the ground level, or flick jumping from the battlements on Badlands to the spire all became difficult or impossible to do.

And yet I saw SO MANY supposed ‘career Soldiers’ adamantly insisting that RJing wasn’t broken. I mean, I’m not awesome at Soldier, yet the fact that RJs were broken was blatantly obvious to me from the moment I booted up the game after the patch to fool around in the new maps.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s wrong to expect the same level of interest in advanced techniques from everyone I end up on a server with (in a game whose skill ceiling is rather low for a multiplayer FPS to begin with). But TF2 pubs are starting to push all the wrong buttons for me – I’m getting tired of having to deal with teams consisting of 4 W+M1 Pyros, 3 Huntsman Snipers and 4 sticky spamming Demomen. What’s worse is when those people are on my team. No, PyroFan23423562, you can’t W+M1 into that sentry and destroy it. Sorry.

I’d start playing PUGs or something but I don’t know anyone else who does it…

Oh, and for some perspective, I’ve been playing Soldier almost exclusively for quite some time now (I occasionally switch off to Medic, Demoman, Spy or Sniper as needed, or if I think I can get away with it). Mainly thanks to this awesome Soldier tutorial:

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Apparently someone at Valve heard all the Sandman bitching

Apparently there’s a big TF2 update coming up…and Valve is soliciting input from high-level players (i.e. league players) on how to balance it

This is probably the most exciting TF2 news I’ve read in ages.

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To make up for the whining

I have something positive to say for once – I’m playing Gyakuten Kenji and I like it so far. 3 cases in and it’s much more entertaining than Gyakuten Saiban 4.

This post is also to make up for the bitching that will ensue once I’ve had some time to compose my thoughts on this little announcement out of E3 today.

以上。

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I’ll have more on the Spy vs Sniper update at some later point

But for now, this is all I want to say.

Damn you Valve and your crappy weapon unlock system!

I’ve put in maybe 3-4 hours of game time a night for the last four nights, and all I have to show for it are two Spy items that I got in quick succession on Thursday night (one of which has since become completely useless thanks to a bug fix).

I didn’t think it was possible to make the weapon acquisition process even worse, but somehow, they found a way. What is so wrong about just giving everyone the new items and letting them run off and play with them?

Bah.

This image is really the only way to sum up the situation. And yes, there are tons of achievement_idle servers out there, with players doing nothing but standing around while AFK.

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Spy sappin’ mah update

Been a while since I wrote anything here…maybe that’s a good thing.

Anyway, if you play TF2 and don’t live under a rock then you probably know that the next big update hits on Thursday. The twist this time is that it’s a double update – both the Sniper and the Spy are getting new items and achievements. Since I’ve started playing Sniper recently (rather terribly I might add) and occasionally dabble in playing Spy this is good news for me.

On a related note, go watch Meet the Spy. It’s funny.

They’ve revealed two Sniper and three Spy weapons so far, as well as a new game mode, so here are some thoughts.

The Huntsman

A bow and arrow – I was hoping for something like a crossbow (the bow from Half-Life and Half-Life 2 is probably my third favourite weapon after the magnum and the shotgun) but this’ll do. It has a faster recharge time between shots and still crits on headshots, and will apparently pin people to walls if you kill them with it. No real complaints…it seems to fill the niche of people who want to headshot without having to scope (with the drawback that you need to be a lot closer to your target).

The Razorback

And here we have the other side of the coin. I find it hard to believe that any decent Sniper will ever equip this. For one, the best Snipers hardly ever stand still – they go for quickscope shots, and the move around a lot so that the enemy doesn’t know where they are. On top of that if Spies know that a Sniper can’t be backstabbed they’ll just whip out their revolver. 3 shots = dead Sniper.

The Dead Ringer

I think the fact that this triggers when the Spy receives a non-lethal hit will limit its usefulness. It seems to me that the ability to trigger the ability on demand like in Fortress Forever might make it more useful. I can only see this being a crutch for crappy Spies who get found out and don’t know how to use the revolver in conjunction with their cloak to escape.

The Cloak and Dagger

This, I’m a bit more enthusiastic about, as it allows Spies to lurk pretty much anywhere undetected without being seen, at the cost of not being able to refill their cloak with metal boxes. I imagine it might even let the Spy lurk behind enemy lines for extended periods, allowing him to let his team know about enemy movements. Not too many points in that, but it’s a team game, isn’t it?

The Ambassador

I had to do a double-take when I saw the name of this weapon, since given my background this is what comes to mind when I think ‘ambassador.’ That said, I’m not sure what they mean by ‘the accuracy of a sniper rifle.’ The regular revolver is already one of the most accurate weapons in the game; do they mean that this new gun will be able to headshot people? If that’s the case I can see this being a compelling upgrade.

Payload Race

I’m not too happy about this mode – Payload is a slow chokepoint-infested grindfest as it is, and all this is going to do is multiply that by two. On top of that, two Arena maps? Does anyone really play Arena? I mean, I do from time to time but the fact that you have only one life per round makes the existence of crits in this mode quite inexcusable.

In summary, the upcoming update looks like it’ll be about equal parts ‘awesome’ and ‘failure.’ Which, I have to admit, is a step up from the Scout update…

They have yet to show off the last Sniper and Spy unlocks, as well as that nonsense about personalized items…I guess we’ll hear about those tomorrow and Thursday. And let’s not forget that Valve likes sneaking other unrelated changes into their class update packs – we might see some other potentially interesting changes.

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Oh Valve, you silly people

Today’s TF2 blog update is pretty funny, for all the wrong reasons.

The first was whether or not you understand what killed you. If you don’t know what killed you, that death is failing in providing you the feedback it’s supposed to, and you won’t be able to figure out what you could have done differently. Unsurprisingly, we saw that these deaths were highly aggravating to players, and in sufficient number caused new players to stop playing entirely. Trying to reduce the number of these deaths in TF2 was done through a variety of changes. It was one of the reasons why we chose to remove the hand-held grenades that each class had in TFC, which were one of the primary causes of these deaths. It was one of several goals that led to the creation of the freezecam.

…but they added critical hits.

The second was whether you felt you were actually engaged with the person who killed you. Dying to someone you weren’t engaged with, especially when you were already engaged with someone else, was aggravating. Even worse was dying to someone who you couldn’t have engaged with, even if you chose to. In that case, you’re very unlikely to believe you could have done anything differently to survive.

but they added the Sandman.

Ah well.

Why another post about TF2 oddities? Well, my total playtime as Soldier finally overtook my playtime as Pyro, making the Soldier my most-played class. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been playing Soldier a lot more since he had a higher skill ceiling, and I’m more or less at the point where I can play the Soldier decently in public games and score reasonably high on the scoreboard. Unfortunately this has also meant that deaths due to crits have become about 100x more annoying as a result. It’s so goddamn annoying to have a decent streak as Soldier ended by some dumbass Engineer’s crit wrench because his sentry managed to kill some dipshit Spy a few minutes earlier. Or to have a Soldier that I successfully juggled one-shot me with a crit shotgun blast that wouldn’t have killed me otherwise.

And don’t get me started on Soldier and Demoman crits, even though I get my fair share of those. Ugh.

Why are there so few nocrit servers out there :(

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Gaming odds and ends

This post might be a little disjointed – I’ve been playing a bunch of games recently and thought I’d just pen down my thoughts in one single post since I don’t really want to write five separate posts in one night.

Team Fortress 2

Valve has patched the game twice since the Scout update, yet the Sandman remains unfixed (although they did manage to break rocket jumping while trying to fix an exploit that made it harder for Snipers to get headshots, and they did break Natascha’s slowdown effect yet again). I’ve played in a few big games since the update, and I’d say the stun is overpowered even if you discount the fact that it affects ubercharges. I have not yet seen a single Scout that doesn’t try to tag me with the ball the moment I see them, and in a few circumstances they’ve managed to stun me for extended periods at close range, allowing them a free kill. One particular incident that comes to mind occurred on the second point of the second stage of Dustbowl – I was playing Soldier and standing on the point when a Scout ran out from the central tunnel, ran up to the point and threw his ball at me. I was stunned for a good 3 seconds or so, and this was from being tagged at close range.

The response from the competitive community has been very clear. CEVO has banned the Sandman, and from what I’ve heard a bunch of the other leagues like ETF2L have followed suit. Keep in mind that this is the first unlockable weapon that they’ve actually banned. If I recall correctly they didn’t even ban the Pyro’s Backburner back when it granted a ridiculous 50-point health bonus.

The response from the rest of the TF2 community has been less distinct. While there are a few players who recognise that the weapon is clearly overpowered, the vast majority of the community’s response has been ‘LOL LERN2TEAMWORK.’ By this they’re implying that somehow Pyros need to have their entire team with them when they try to circle behind enemy lines to attempt an ambush, so that they can successfully fend off a class that they were previously on a reasonably even footing against. And of course, if your Medic successfully builds up an ubercharge by being a good healer and deploys it on a friendly Demoman in order to take out a Sentry farm, only to have his uber rendered useless by a flying baseball, that’s his fault for not being a team player.

Surely the absurdity is obvious.

I’m hoping that, like they did with the Backburner, Valve will realise what a terrible beast they’ve unleashed and make some sort of fix. A popular suggestion seems to be to change the stun effect to something akin to the effect of Team Fortress Classic’s concussion grenades, but honestly I think they need to go back to the drawing board with this unlock. Never mind that there are a few achievements that depend on it – go back to the design phase and get it right this time. And for God’s sake stop getting your unlock ideas from the Steam forums.

I’m starting to wonder if I should be playing Fortress Forever instead…

Lost Planet

This was recently on sale on Steam for the irresistable price of $5. I’d only ever played the demo previous to this, and I thought it was alright, so I decided to see what the full game was like (even though the superior Colonies Edition is out now). I’ve played the first few missions, and it’s not too bad. I can’t quite get 60fps out of it, but shooting up giant bugs in snowy wastelands is pretty fun. My main complaints so far are that the game is kind of easy (I haven’t died once yet) and that Wayne’s default movement speed is a little on the slow side, even when he’s piloting one of the giant VS mechs. I guess I’ll see if these continue to be problems as I progress through the game.

Still, this has me interested in the recently-announced sequel – I wonder what improvements Capcom will bring to the table.

King of Fighters ‘98 Ultimate Match

I started playing KOF (and indeed, fighting games) with King of Fighters ‘99, but I respect KOF’98’s place in the order of things. Given that disclaimer, I rather like ‘98UM. It doesn’t have most of my favourite characters, but the (remarkably solid) system changes they’ve made to the original game make this a must-buy for any KOF fan, I’d say. Most of the changes they’ve made revolve around making Extra mode more interesting, and it seems to have worked. Extra mode users now benefit from the ability to cancel normals into dodges, and to cancel certain special attacks directly into MAX mode. On top of that they can choose when they want to break stock unlike vanilla ‘98 where the bar started draining as soon as it filled up.

In addition, the new Ultimate mode, which allows you to mix-and-match subsystems from both modes, poses some interesting possibilities. Do you want the mobility afforded by the roll, or will you trade that for the ability to dodge and quickly counterattack (and extend your combos using the quick dodge)? Do you want the ability to do SDMs at any life level, or would you rather have the ability to max out in mid-combo for the possibility of turning your otherwise staid B&B combo into a more damaging variant?

As for the quality of the port itself, fortunately the US version of the game seems to have turned out pretty well – progressive scan support is intact, and as far as I can tell the game has been brought over more or less unmolested, which should be a relief for anyone who was horrified by Ignition’s handling of the PAL versions of King of Fighters XI and NeoGeo Battle Coliseum.

So yeah, if you don’t have the import version already, go out and get this one. It’s $20 – you really have no excuse if you claim to be a KOF fan.

Street Fighter IV

I’m still getting used to the physics and timings, but at the very least my win ratio seems to have improved a little (in that it is no longer zero). My MadCatz Tournament Edition FightStick arrived two weeks late, but I used the Amazon gift certificate I was given as compensation to buy a PS2->PS3 controller adapter so I could use my old Tekken 5 Hori stick with the game until it arrived (makes me wonder why I didn’t do it earlier, actually). So far I’ve mainly been sticking to Ryu and Abel, with some failed attempts at using Fei Long and Dhalsim (both of whom apparently have a pretty steep learning curve). I’ve played a few games online, mainly against Orochinagi members; I’ve played a few random strangers, although I haven’t run into any of the Ken players of legend. I suppose I should be thankful.

On a side note, the MadCatz stick doesn’t work for PS2 games. I don’t know why I didn’t see this coming, as this was also the case for the Sega Virtua Stick and the Hori PS3 sticks when they were released. The best I can hope for is for support to be added in the next PS3 firmware update, I guess.

BlazBlue

Now, I haven’t actually had a chance to play this game yet, but PS3 and 360 ports were announced recently. A lot of fighter fans are understandably excited about this, but a potential issue with the port has already been raised. The arcade version of BlazBlue runs at 1280×768/768p, while both current-generation consoles are locked to outputting at 1280×720/720p (and indeed, won’t let you play the game at its native resolution). The full extent of the problem is laid out pretty clearly over at the Insomnia forums.

In short, it looks like the great sprites and backgrounds are in danger of being butchered by scaling. If the blurry upscaled sprites in all of SNK Playmore’s Atomiswave releases bugged you, well, this is just as bad. Possibly worse, since it’s one of the first high-definition 2D fighters, and really deserves more respect.

At this point, given that ArcSys can’t go back in time and re-program the game to output 720p in the first place, the only real thing they can do is to crop 48 lines from the top and bottom of the display to avoid affecting the sprites. This is what they seem to have done, but the screenshots still lack the definition of the arcade version. A rep from Aksys (the company handling the US release) has gone on the record as saying that apparently the screenshots they released of the 360 and PS3 versions were smaller in size to make them ‘download friendly’. This just seems ridiculous to me, given that stuff like this is typically distributed through special press FTP servers where presumably bandwidth wouldn’t be a concern.

We’ll have to see how this shakes out, but I am rather worried that we’ll end up getting a butchered port of one of the first high-def 2D fighters.

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Griping about Valve

A lot of gaming news sites and blogs trumpet Valve as one of the finest developers in the industry, regularly producing excellent games and otherwise shitting gold. I’ve certainly suggested that I think of them highly, both here and elsewhere.

Recent events have shifted this view of mine somewhat – particularly the Team Fortress 2 Scout update.

I don’t think I would draw much ire if I were to state that TF2 isn’t a great competitive game (regardless of what my review says; it was written when I wasn’t really knowledgeable about the game, and I should probably delete it). The game, in the form that it’s played on public servers, tends to revolve around explosive/flamethrower spam, choke points and the use of ubercharges to get past these choke points. The presence of the ubercharge is pretty much the only reason why the game even holds together at this level, if you ask me – it’s the only tool available to get through chokepoints and break stalemates, outside of perhaps an unusually coordinated Spy rush. And let’s not forget about critical hits and random damage.

(The competitive format of the game has none of these problems. obviously – the 6 vs 6 format and class limits on Demomen and Medics mean that spam never becomes an issue. And of course, crits and random damage are turned off)

So given that the ubercharge is pretty much a tool designed to break stalemates (a design goal specifically called out by Valve in their developer commentary for TF2), I have no idea why they thought that giving the Scout a new weapon that would basically nullify ubers would be a good idea. The motivation behind this weapon (and at least one of the other unlocks) seems to have been ‘the Scout doesn’t survive too well in the spam-dominated public game environment, so let’s give him something to cope with them.’

As if that wasn’t enough, the same weapon basically makes the Heavy useless. He already has trouble dealing with Scouts when he doesn’t have his gun spun up, and now he’s basically a walking bullseye target when he does have his gun spun up.

If anything, that betrays a key flaw in the way Valve is approaching TF2 balance – competitive games should be balanced with high-level play in mind. More often than not games that are balanced for high level play (Starcraft, Quake III Arena, any number of great fighting games) end up being good games at lower levels too. Instead of trying to balance the game for pubbers they really should be balancing it according to the needs of competitive players – for instance, making the Heavy, Sniper, Pyro, Spy and Engineer more viable in high-level play than they are now. Granted, if they had done this, the game would probably not be anywhere near as popular as it is now, but shouldn’t good design trump marketing considerations?

On another Valve note – Left 4 Dead.

I’ve been playing Versus mode a lot recently, and I have to say that playing as the Infected is great fun. There’s nothing quite like when a good plan comes together. Unfortunately, the other half of the experience – the Survivors – is considerably less interesting. The best strategy is to camp in a corner or a chokepoint while spamming your melee attack. Melee attacks don’t do that much damage, but they do keep you from taking damage rather effectively, and you can basically spam it infinitely. In theory the Smoker is supposed to counter this tactic, but smoked Survivors can easily be freed by hitting them with a melee attack, and you only ever have at most one Smoker on the Infected team. I really think that the melee attack needs to be given a longer cooldown, or they need to have some sort of timer that prevents you from melee-ing non-stop.

On a side note, I’ve recently been playing Quake Live, and if anything it’s revealed to me how terrible I really am at multiplayer FPSes. Of course, I’ll be playing it a lot more because it’s basically Quake III, and Quake III is awesome.

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