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.


The E3 post I should have written a month ago

Yeah, I’m late. I’ve been busy :p

There was some interesting stuff at E3, I guess. Of particular interest to me were the following:

  • Left 4 Dead 2 – yeah, I’m looking forward to it. There’s been a lot of bitching about the timing of the release (just a year after the first game came out) and I understand some of it, particularly since L4D has only gotten two significant updates since its release (the first being the major patch that buffed the Infected in versus mode, and the second being the Survival Pack). However, the point of a sequel is to improve upon the original’s mechanics, and it looks like L4D2 will do this, with more weapons, more enemy types (the new Charger special Infected should make corner camping a fair bit harder) and the Director now being able to control the weather (which affects visibility) and the routes you can take through the level. Given that, I’m very much willing to shell out another $50 to try it.
  • Metroid: Other M – This came out of nowhere, really. The fact that Team Ninja is developing something for the Wii is pretty much enough to get me excited. While my experience with Ninja Gaiden is limited to the DS version (lol) and the demo for Ninja Gaiden Sigma, as well as an hour or so playing Ninja Gaiden II on my friend’s 360, and if this new Metroid game is anything like it then it will definitely be worth playing.
  • Super Mario Galaxy 2 – more Mario Galaxy? Yes please.
  • Mass Effect 2 – I thought Mass Effect was a game that failed to live up to what it could have been – it had an enormous universe to explore…which mostly consisted of barren planets with abandoned mines/military bases/laboratories, all of which must have been built with prefabs or something seeing how they repeated the same 4 level layouts again and again. The combat system was decent enough, although the much-hyped dialogue tree system wasn’t really anything that hadn’t been done before. If anything I’d have preferred a system that didn’t separate your options into ‘Obvious Good Choice’, ‘Obvious Neutral Choice’ and ‘Obvious Bad Choice.’ There have been games that have done this already, and I’m not sure why so many devs seems to be married to it. In any case, Bioware claims that ME2 will have less barren planets, and that the choices you made in ME1 will have actual consequences for your ME2 game. On top of that they’ve apparently beefed up the combat with new features like location-based damage and an improved cover system. I guess I’ll keep an eye on it.
  • Assassin’s Creed II – I’m playing the first game right now, and while it’s a pretty fun action game, all the people who called out the pointless overworld (which can fortunately be skipped after you’ve visited all the cities) and the lack of investigation types are pretty much right on the money. While this game seems to have added a bunch of new combat moves, I don’t know that it’s addressed the real problems with the game. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it has, but interviews like this don’t really do much for my confidence.
  • Uncharted 2: Among Thieves – The first Uncharted is still one of the best PS3 exclusives out there, and its sequel seems to improve on it with a more involved melee system and more enemy variation. Hopefully the combat set-pieces are just as exciting as the first game’s.

That’s basically it, I guess. Borderlands seems kind of interesting, but I want to know more about it before I decide whether I should look forward to it or not – right now it seems to be a first-person Diablo II with guns.

Tomorrow being a ‘special occasion’, I’ll have a more in-depth post on a game I’ve been playing on my PS3 for the last week or so.


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.


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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.


Achieving nothing

I was reading a thread about the upcoming Left 4 Dead Survival Pack on one of the Internet forums I frequent today, and I came across a rather strange quote from one of the forum regulars:

I think all DLC that doesn’t bring in new achievements with it should be free, and if it’s not, it should be pretty cheap. I’m talking 100MSP.

It wasn’t the fact that he was willing to pay for DLC that struck me as strange (that seems to be a fixture of our times) – it was that he viewed achievements as worth paying for.

I have quite a bit to say on the subject of achievements in video games, but I’ll start off by saying that anyone whose buy/not-to-buy decision is based on the availability of achievements for a particular game is a gibbering idiot.

Harsh? Maybe. But I can’t really put it any other way. Achievements are largely pointless in the grand scheme of things. They’re really just a way to artificially prolong replay value by adding silly tasks for players to do, some of which run contrary to the whole point of the game. They’re a bonus, nothing more, and they’re most definitely not worth anything.

For instance, take the infamous gnome achievement in Half-Life 2: Episode Two. This achievement gives you credit for successfully bringing a lawn gnome, found near the start of the game, to the final area and stowing it in a rocket before the end of the game. Keep in mind that while doing this the game has you drive a car (which the gnome has the habit of frequently falling out of) over a large distance while engaging in several large gun battles. Is the ability to do this rather ridiculous task really worth any money at all? Is the game worse off for their exclusion? Obviously not.

Alright, admittedly it’s not such a big problem in single-player games. Heck, I’ll admit to going back and replaying HL2: Ep Two while trying to get the achievement where you squish all the antlion grubs (which is pretty much where I drew the line). It’s when the spectre of achievement farmers begins to haunt multiplayer games that I start to take umbrage. As a prime example, here’s a revealing quote from madlep, one of the main contributors to ubercharged.net (a major Team Fortress 2 blog):

You know how I mentioned that I top scored as pyro at the beginning of the post? IT WAS BECAUSE THE ENTIRE SERVER WAS FULL OF MEDICS TRYING TO UBER DEMOMEN JUMPING OFF CLIFFS, MEDICS TRYING TO UBER SCOUTS, OR MEDICS TRYING TO UBER FIST HEAVIES (or the scouts or heavies or whatever from their clan helping them out)

Ridiculous stuff. What the hell did valve think would happen when they put such moronic criteria for the achievements in there?

You can read the rest of his post, which deals with the mentality of achievement farmers, here.

That post was written shortly after the first content update for Team Fortress 2, where Valve added three new weapons and 36 new achievements for the Medic class. The achievements would have been harmless by themselves, but Valve tied the new weapons to your progress in obtaining the achievements, resulting in the tomfoolery that madlep described above.

The problem with adding achievements to multiplayer games is pretty clear – the rules and mechanics of the game are already sending you a strong signal as to how you should be playing (this is true of single player games as well, but like I said above I don’t consider achievement farmers in single player games to be that big a deal). Good Team Fortress 2 players know that Scouts should almost never be ubered, that Medics who run off trying to kill enemies with their syringe gun aren’t doing their job, and that Heavies running around punching people while ubered are colossal morons. Yet the achievements tell players to do these things, and say that they will be rewarded for doing so! Absolutely asinine.

Valve, perhaps realising this would be a problem, has made the criteria for the subsequent achievement packs much more reasonable – the Pyro and Heavy Achievements stick more closely to what players are expected to do with those classes (although there are still some pretty weird ones in there). Still, the fact that players needed to unlock them in order to access the new content rendered the game almost unplayable for the week following the respective updates. You would see teams with six Pyros per side, with pretty much all the other players on fire at the same time. Classes like the Scout and the Medic became practically useless – It was a truly ridiculous state of affairs.

The game is already telling you how it should be played – why not listen to it for a change?

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Left 4 Dead is bloody brilliant

I’ve been getting my ass kicked (with friends) in the first campaign, and I love it. It’s the first real FPS I’ve played that relies on co-op so much, and it does co-op really well.

We reached the finale of the first campaign a few times today, but never managed to hold out until the rescue chopper arrived. A truly ridiculous number of zombies assails you at that point, coupled with numerous boss zombie spawns (at one point we had a Tank, a Boomer and a Smoker all running around). At one point the Tank climbed up to the vantage point where I had been sniping from and basically punched me off the building.

Good times.

And now, it’s time for some screenshots from the full game!

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The undead hordes lie conquered around me

So yeah, Left 4 Dead is pretty damn fun.

There aren’t nearly enough dedicated servers to meet demand, though. I spent more time trying to connect to games yesterday than I did actually playing. And doing peer-to-peer hosting puts all the AI load on the host’s computer.

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Convention Tales

I spent most of the day at PAX today, since I’d never been to a gaming convention and there were a few games I wanted to check out. I actually didn’t get to play too many of them (the lines were way too long for me to be standing around) but I did get a reasonable idea of how some of the games I’m looking forward to are shaping up.

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Doug Lombardi thinks Crytek are a bunch of idiots

Well, no, he doesn’t. But at least this snippet from this interview with him from Shacknews suggests that he thinks that sane system requirements are entirely a developers’ responsibility:

Shack: Does the responsibility lie somewhat with the hardware manufacturers to market their products in a reasonable way, or is it up to the developers to set sane requirements?

Doug Lombardi: Oh I think it’s totally the fault of the developers. Totally the fault of the developers. I mean the graphics guys, their job to keep pushing the envelope, and as they push the envelope, move the lower-end cards down to a nice price point, so that there’s always this evolution that’s happening. If you’re a hot rod type of guy, and you want to spend $400 on the latest thing, you want to have a smoking machine, and when Left 4 Dead comes out you want to run it at its highest resolution with killer framerates, and call your buddies over for a beer and make them all drool over your system, awesome. But if you’re just a guy who wants a decent PC for less than a thousand bucks, and wants to be able to run games on it, there should be a card out there that runs games at a decent famerate and decent fluidity. Then it’s on us to write for both of those guys.

It’s a business decision, really. Too often I think the development side of things runs the house. People say, “Oh, we’ve got to target those high-end core gamers. We have the best graphics, sweetest screenshots, and we’ll get more press, and we’ll win.” Okay, well, you’ll win in the pre-launch phase. Then when the game comes out, and 60-70% of the people who don’t have that sweet machine–maybe even higher numbers, maybe 80% don’t have that sweet machine–well you just cut off your ability to sell to all of those guys.

You know, it’s hard to be able to have games that scale, and to write performance on the high end, and write performance on the bottom end, but you know, winning in any industry means some hard work, and there’s a certain level of hard work that developers have to take responsibility for. And when you see games that do that, where they have solid gameplay, and they scale well across machines, usually those games do well.

Nothing much I can disagree with there, really. Writing an engine that doesn’t scale to lesser systems and then whining that no-one is buying your game is kind of asking to be laughed at.

On a side note, I downloaded the Painkiller demo yesterday (after watching Yahtzee’s review, obviously) and gave it a whirl. It definitely reminds me of Serious Sam a whole lot; it features a ridiculous number of enemies with rather stupid AI who try to basically gangbang you, while you run backwards firing your weapon furiously. The graphics are definitely very nice for 2004 (although I think Half-Life 2 and Far Cry probably outdo it considerably). If anything in the level moves, you pretty much need to shoot it.

Oh, and the gun that shoots shurikens and lightning? It’s awesome.