…think about Indie game narratives

Player: Lets play this game.
Indie Game: I have a sparse ambiguous narrative.
Player: Sure, whatever, I hear your game mechanics are fun.
Indie Game: Maybe, here I have dumped you into a situation with absolutely no guidance, you can walk to the right though, or maybe click on that button.
Player: Ok.
Indie Game: Bravo, here are some fun and engaging mechanics.
Player: Lovely, I notice you are a linear experience though.
Indie Game: No worries, here is more fun and engaging mechanics, oh and an ambiguous plot spewing NPC.
Ambiguous Plot Spewing NPC: Something portentous.
Player: Nice mechanics, I’m having fun.
Ambiguous Plot Spewing NPC: You might be the bad guy.
Player: What?
Ambiguous Plot Spewing NPC: Bye!
Indie Game: Here’s some more fun, engaging mechanics, but I’ve also made the graphics a bit grimier, because you might be the bad guy.
Player: So I might be the one who will bring doom to the world then?
Indie Game: Maybe, I’m sparse and ambiguous.
Ambiguous Plot Spewing NPC: Why are you doing this? You might be the bad guy, doooooooooom.
Player: It’s a linear game experience, I literally can either carry on your pre-defined plot or stop playing your game entirely. That’s not a clever choice you are forcing me to make.
Indie Game: I only said maybe, any way, here’s a loyal friendly NPC to join you.
Loyal Friendly NPC: You’re awesome, I know we’ve only just met but I will do literally anything for you, lets continue through this completely linear experience together.
Indie Game: With more fun, engaging mechanics.
Player: Yay!
Loyal Friendly NPC: Oh no awesome friend, by your actions I have now died. I am dead.
Indie Game: And it’s all your fault! You scumbag, you engaged with the fun engaging mechanics and now Loyal Friendly NPC is dead, dead.
Player: Now I feel sad. Oh no, wait, now I’m annoyed at you trying to make a moral judgement about me when you’ve presented me a linear experience and my only options are to play the game you made (thus making you responsible for killing the Loyal Friendly NPC not I) or not playing your game at all.
Indie Game: Non need to get sarcastic, here are some more fun, engaging mechanics.
Player: I will play your game but I care not one whit for your sparse ambiguous narrative
Ambiguous Plot Spewing NPC: Doooooooooooooooooooom.
Player: Sod off.
Indie Game: Here’s the end of the game, surprise binary choice that ahs not been indicated at all before now, look, look, you can choose not to be the bad guy.
Player: I. DO. NOT. CARE.

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… think about CLARC

CLARC is game that is a masterclass in teaching the user without the user realising they are being taught.  You guide your cute robot around the digital-movement world, one square at a time, you pickup, you put down, you press switches, you block lasers, you redirect lasers, you split lasers, you destroy blocks, you move, you dance, you avoid, you rescue, you guide.  Each puzzle room picks some of these tasks for you to perform, an ever changing potpourri of options that makes every room fresh.  No puzzle repeats itself.  And the game introduces you to each and everyone of these actions, possibilities one at a time and almost entirely implicitly.  No laboured tutorials or insulting ‘advice’ from a sidekick character  as you step into a room you can see the new thing that has been introduced already active and tactile.  The first time you are introduced to the block that redirects laser beams you can see it redirecting a laser beam – you don’t need to be told.  The first time you see a block that is heavy enough to trigger a switch but lets lasers shoot straight through it, that’s right, you can see it sitting on a switch with a laser beam shooting through it.  Show don’t tell is magnificently adhered to.  Every game designer should play this game and then immediately cut the flabby bullshit that passes for a tutorial from their game right now.

CLARC is a game that has a bizarre and aggravating mis-step.  In a game of careful, discrete movement, of contemplation the designers have added Tanks.  In a game of study and predictability the Tanks are agents of Eris.  The concept of Tanks is not wrong.  Mobile, actively hostile Lasers that hunt the player down is a good idea.  The actual execution undermines the enjoyment of each and every room they appear in.

CLARC is a spiritual successor to the classic isometric games of yore.  Your Knightlore, Batman and Head Over Heels.  Jon Ritman made a discovery in creating these style of gmes: he categorised the rooms as action rooms, puzzle rooms or action-puzzle rooms.  In the action rooms it was all about testing the players reflexes, in the puzzle rooms it was testing the players brains, in the action-puzzle rooms it was about the player trying to solve simplified puzzles against the pressure of the action component.  The action-puzzle rooms didn’t work – if a player failed they wouldn’t know why, was it because they were failing to solve the puzzle or was it because they were being defeated by the action?  Failing and not knowing why is the single most frustrating thing in playing games.

The Tanks are the action-puzzle rooms of CLARC.  The Tanks are an analogue menace in a digital world.  They are constantly in motion, seemingly working to their own system of rules whilst the player is stuck moving one fixed square at a time.  What’s particularly aggravating about the Tanks is that about half the time they are used simply as mobile lasers.  They are fenced off from the player – restricted to a predictable path, another intriguing twist on the smorgasbord of challenges, familiar yet different enough to pique the interest.  The other fifty percent of rooms they are let loose in the same space as the player, bumping up against them, targeting their laser in a seemingly random fashion, choosing a direction of travel that seems predictable only for the player’s prediction to be frustratingly thwarted.  They are almost certainly completely deterministic but their continuous movement means they do not mesh with the player’s inputs and so become an arbitrary random factor.  Rooms that seem to be simple puzzles become trial-and-error frustration-fests as a Tanks laser manages to catch the edge of CLARC once again.  Did you fail because you didn’t move fast enough or because you chose the wrong route?  You don’t know.  Failing and not knowing why is the single most frustrating thing in playing games.

If the Tanks had simply followed the rules, if they lived in the same square-by-square world that CLARC lives in.  If they had been introduced with the same incredibly careful care of every single other element.  If they were governed by a visible rule system that could be understood and manipulated rather than being a rolling dice they would have worked.  If they only moved when CLARC moved, each action followed by a reaction they would have worked.  We do not want capricious free will in our enemies.  Especially when our enemies are programmed robots.

CLARC is a masterclass – so much can be learned from both its good and its bad.

… think about Card Wars

Herein I think about the mobile game Card Wars.  The thing about the freemium model is that it’s free if you so choose. Card Wars forgets the free part. I paid money just to download a freemium title. I feel like a fool and most certainly not mathematical in anyway.

The thing about the freemium model is the mium part, the paying of money if you so choose.  Card Wars has remembered that part real good. Let me count the ways.

  1. You have a limited deck box, you can only have 50 cards max, you can spend premium currency to boost it 5 at a time
  2. Cards themselves can be purchased – in randomised chests, this is a CCG after all
  3. When you lose a match you can spend premium currency to keep the XP, non-premium currency and cards you have acquired during the match.  I’m not sure but I think you can even use it to resurrect and continue as well
  4. To top it off there’s an energy meter as well, to play a match requires the spending of an ever increasing number of hearts, they recharge art a reasonable rate (so far) but who knows what ridiculous level of heartage will be required for later rounds. Hearts can of course be topped up with premium currency

What I’m saying is that they have covered every angle in a rapacious search for cash which feels particularly galling given that you have to spend actual cash money to buy the app in the first place.

Which is a shame as beneath the dead hand of monetisation strategies is a cute little game. A simple but not simplistic system allows the computer to play a decent game against you. A neat take on resource mechanics (reminding us once again what a terrible error the land cards were in Magic: the Gathering) which combines an escalating number of resource points each turn with cards being limited to being played on the appropriate landscape type gives interesting deck building and play decisions. And it’s clear the devs care about the game as they recently released a massive balance patch that changed pretty much every aspect of the game – initially the number of resource points didn’t increase each turn which led to numerous problems in the tempo of the game. It speaks of extended play testing and feedback.

But.

Because freemium titles have to slavishly follow the formula of the Skinner box there’s a feature of the game designed solely to ding the reward centre of the brain that undermines this careful calibration. The player’s Hero card, their Avatar, the totem which needs to be defended can level up. In levelling up the hero increases the maximum number of cards a player can have in their deck and, crucially, the number of hitpoints they have.  This breaks everything. You start playing games with 15 hitpoints on each side, before long you are at 45 hp each. How can any card be balanced for both a game when you need to inflict and protect against 15 points of damage and then when you need to do the same for 45?

This, more than the tawdry desire to try to get you to buy jewels, damages Card Wars. It is a shame, there is a worthwhile game that has been mutilated to fit an ideal, a production line approach to mobile gaming, that simply doesn’t work for the format.

That is what I think.

Quote

A philosophy to live by

When playing a game, the goal is to win, but it is the goal that is important, not the winning.

— Reiner Knizia

This quote from Knizia basically sums up my approach to games.  The fun in a game comes not from winning but by attempting to win.  I play to win not because winning is fun but because the challenge of trying to win is fun.