Sunday, June 29, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Puzzle Quest

Puzzle Quest will present over-leveled foes not just in the main quest, but also in some of the side quests. You will have more success in grinding by seeking out roadside encounters.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Puzzle Quest

Another hour of playing Puzzle Quest has confirmed what I suspected. Its puzzle-based battle system makes grinding fun.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Gamer's Diary - GRID

Doing better. Fourth place in the Michigan Demolition Derby. I think I have figured out the secret: Treat it like a regular race instead of an opportunity to smash cars (as fun as I might find that). The more I concentrate on crashing cars the farther back in the pack I finish.

Storytelling About Video Games

It has occurred to me lately that U.S. Culture has fragmented, and I find value in the notion of having a common one. In the eras before mass entertainment, cultures used folklore as one of the ways to pass its memes on.

Folklore tells us stories that help us define who we are as a people and teach us valuable lessons about life and our relationships to other people.

We find our folklore today in pop culture and mass media. They have such a large volume that everyone has to pick and choose what stories to experience, and so we each end up with a unique culture for every person rather than a solid common base.

Schools used to provide much of this through education in classic litersture and American folk tales, but a focus on multiculturalism (meaning every culture's stories but ours) has largely destroyed what cultural commonality we had.

This leaves us with pop culture, where the massive volume of material creates the fragmentation I referred to earlier.

I think that folk tale renditions of classic literature, plays, movies, television, books, comics, and yes, video games could help provide this common story database to define our American culture. Think of it as a kind of Cliff's Notes for American identity.

I've added to my (already over-long) to-do list making an attempt at composing and publishing under the Creative Commons license some such folk tales. Others are welcome to contribute, as long as they submit the material under CC or some other similarly non-restrictive license.

Thursday, June 26, 2008


For those who haven't noticed, I've started writing all my blog posts in E-prime. It has all the same characteristics of English, except for lacking all forms of the verb, "to be".

I think it tends to make my writing stronger, as it makes difficult (though not impossible) writing in the passive voice or otherwise omitting the agent of action.

So if you see some odd turns of phrase in my posts, you can attribute them to my attempts to rewrite sentences to avoid that verb.

I welcome any comments suggesting better, alternate phrasings that also eliminate that verb.

Gamer's Diary - GTA Vice City Stories, The Circus

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories - After finishing my blog entries, I still had time in my chemo session, so I put the Pocket PC away and pulled out the PSP. I haven't gotten that far in the game (finished the Phil missions in this session), but so far the missions and Vic Vance's character have seemed to jibe.

I've seen remarks on GTA IV from such luminaries as Newsweek's N'Gai Croal and MTV's Stephen Totilo that Niko's reluctant life of crime has a cognitive dissonance with the missions the game requires him to perform. He seems turned off by violence in the cutscenes, but has missions that require him to massacre entire groups of small-time nonviolent criminals.

Based on what I've seen so far, I don't think Vic Vance has the same problem. He needs money to help his brother, and will pursue any means necessary to get it. He tried an honorable route - the U.S. Army - but got almost immediately dishonorably discharged for following the orders of his corrupt sergeant. Bitterly disillusioned by his experience in the honorable world, Vic becomes willing to do any job that pays, though some of it still rankles.

Once while repossessing cars for Phil, Vic learned that most had actually been paid off, and he was just stealing the cars for Phil to sell again. This bothered him, and he said as much to Phil. Phil was unrepentant, and Vic dropped the issue - probably because he needed more jobs from Phil.

So I don't think the case holds, as either Mr. Croal or Mr. Totilo suggested, that how GTA characters behave in cutscenes always has a disconnect with how they are required to behave in missions.

And have I mentioned? If you can get past the idea that your in-game character belongs to the Bad Guys, or if you revel in that sort of thing, there's a lot of fun to be had in all the 3d GTA games - including Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories.

Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus - It became clear to me again last night that you do not need video games, movies, or television to have an evening of entertainment filled with rip-roaring fun.

The last time, a few months ago, I took my fiancée, S---, and her youngest, J---, to Disney on Ice's Finding Nemo. It reprised the events of the movie, but with ice-dance numbers and songs. It comes across as a whole different experience from the movie; live performers and the possibility of mistakes and the live immediacy of it all has something about it that lends it a certain extra intimacy and excitement.

The Circus comes across the same way, only more so. The audience is more involved; the clowns interact with the audience, and some lucky patrons who'd won some kind of contest came down onto the floor in trams among the performers. And certainly more excitement came from the acrobatic stunts, live animal acts, and clown comedy than the Disney production delivered.

After these two events, I think I understand why people still go to the theatre and sports arenas, even though television makes it easier to see everything up close; all these get their true magic from the live human experience.

Next: no worries, more about video games.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Cars, Legos, and Gems, Oh My!

GRID - I completed the goal I had set for myself - three consecutive wins in the Muscle Car Classic event. Having done that, I considered myself ready to participate in other events.


None of what I had learned in the first event prepared me for the next one - a demolition derby. I found myself constantly getting lost on the figure-8 track, bringing up the rear of the pack, and getting pulped by the other drivers. I only finished 11th out of 12 because one of the other drivers crashed out of the race.

Having learned my lesson, in future I will race an event until I win it, then move on to the next. Perfecting performance in one event does nothing to improve overall game prowess.

Lego Indiana Jones - J--- wanted to play with her Webkinz but Mom needed to use the laptop, so I offered to play Lego Indiana Jones with her. We played through the Nepal level, and found that we progressed through the level much faster when we focussed on it rather than loitering and trying to get all the studs and bonuses.

Like the Lego Star Wars games, this one can be played by kids and adults together, with tons of fun to be had by both.

Puzzle Quest - I thought that I had finished playing for the evening, but then my oh-so-lovely cat Bonnie decided at one in the morning that the time had come for me to play with her, and chose to let me know by dragging her favorite feather toy up onto the bed and meowing loudly in my face.

Bonnie's head: pop off or twist off? At that moment, I would have liked to find out.

Unable to return to sleep right away, I fired up the 360 and played Puzzle Quest for a while. I have seen forum posts complaining that enemies seem overly lucky in the game, or that they seem to have advance knowledge of what gems will fall. Playing it, I can see where they might think that, but I think they fail to notice all the times when the player gets similarly lucky.

I noticed while playing that sticking with story line quests results in the game pitting me against enemies that have a significantly higher level and better stats than me. It set me - a level 19 warrior - against a level 24 orc. I lost. Badly.

This means I will have to spend time grinding levels by performing minor quests and fighting road bandits, in order to get strong enough to fight the orc lord's guard. Ordinarily I would find such levelling tedious. But the fun nature of the combat means I will enjoy it instead. So, no biggie.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

RPG Battle Systems

Yesterday I saw an ad for an Xbox 360 RPG with turn-based battles (something I like in an RPG), and it reminded me of some ideas that have percolated in the back of my mind for some time now.

Nobody cares about your stupid battle animations. They resemble cutscenes but lack half the justification: They offer pretty scenes but do nothing to advance the plot. I find them interesting to watch the first time, after that they just slow down the gameplay. This holds doubly true for "summons" animations.

I think a move should take (barring an introductory battle animation) no more than one second from the time the player picks his action from the menus. Yeah, you read me right, one second. We don't put up with this kind of crap in action games, why should we in RPGs?

In my more cynical moments I think the developers do this on purpose, specifically to slow down the gameplay. After all, how can your RPG meet the (legally required?) 40 hour minimum playtime if you don't slow the player down?

In any case, overlong battle animations break a cardinal rule of game design, and one of media development: "Don't waste the player's time," and "Kill your darlings". Long battle animations waste the player's time, keeping him from continuing the gameplay, and as for the second, I'll explain by quoting Samuel Johnson: "Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly, fine, strike it out."

Game designers often make the error of thinking that what they've created looks so fine, that everyone will want to see it...over and over. Final Fantasy X exemplifies this mistake. Not only did they think their battle animations so fine that you could only shorten the summons ones, not eliminate them, they thought their cutscenes so fine that they made them unskippable.

At the other end of the wasting-the-player's-time and kill-your-darlings scale we find Puzzle Quest, which gets it right. Perhaps the limited space for the game and limited resources for development forced adherence to these principles, or perhaps the designers used their noggins rather than their vanity when crafting the game.

You won't find any battle animations in Puzzle Quest, except for the (very brief) lightning bolt that damages a party's health. Each move, not counting a chain of moves, takes no more than a second. Cutscenes last only a short time, conveying through speech balloons the minimum necessary to advance plot and gameplay. The game moves along at a fast clip, never wasting the player's time.

Your stupid semi-turn-based semi-action-oriented battle system sucks. If you the designer wish to give me a turn-based battle system, then do that. If you want to give me an action battle system, then do that. But don't give me some half-baked combination of the two. I find little more infuriating than having to pick an action from a complex menu while the enemy's action bar charges. I know that when his bar fills, he will instantly lauch an attack. No time spent perusing menu choices for him, no sir!

Final Fantasy VII has this kind of system. Your bar charges, then the enemy's does. You can't even begin to pick an action until your bar becomes full. The instant the enemy's bar fills, he attacks. Even Final Fantasy X sins a little here; though 95% of the time you can make totally turn-based moves, when you pick a limit break move it forces you to play a twitch-based minigame. I find this frustrating, especially as I age.

I prefer games that stay firmly in their lanes, like Puzzle Quest and Xenosaga and Dragon Quest 8 on the turn-based side, and Mass Effect, Final Fantasy XII and Crackdown on the action side. All three action-based RPGs handle their battle systems differently, but all have good arguments for them. None of the action-based ones try to mix in turns, and none of the turn-based ones try to mix in an action twitch-fest.

Gamer's Diary - GRID

Played the Muscle Car Classic and won both of its races handily. I've won this event twice in a row now. Once more and I'll move on to other events. What can I say? GRID still thrills.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Puzzle Pirates, Pirates of the Caribbean Online, Halo 3

It seems odd that of all the puzzles I've played, I enjoy bilge pumping the most. The puzzle resembles Bejeweled, though not as closely as the one in Puzzle Quest. Next up: pillaging.

I would set up my fiancée's youngest daughter, J---, with Puzzle Pirates but for two things. First, she has 11 years and the game requires players of at least 13 years of age. Second, the game looks as though the age requirement is sensible. It looks sensible not because of violence or adult content, but rather because the mechanics of the game outside of the puzzles seems a bit complex and daunting, even for an adult.

But Puzzle Pirates put me in mind of another similarly themed MMO with an E rating: Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean Online. It has a lot less to do in it than in Puzzle Pirates, but what it has seems fun, the game world appears more accessible, and its target market enjoys it, so why should I naysay it?

I installed it and helped her get set up in it, and she played it for a good two or three hours straight. She seemed to like it, and spent a good deal of time customizing her pirate and picking a name for her boat. I'll see if J--- still plays it in a couple of weeks.

Just as I had settled down in front of the 360 to relax with a session of Puzzle Quest, I got a message from my fiancée's son, A---, who currently stays in Colorado, visiting relatives and friends there. It turns out he wanted to partner up for a few rounds of Halo 3 multiplayer, so I put the disk in and away we went.

I have four things to say about that.

First, A--- has a temper problem, which shows up in his voice and language, especially as we progress through rounds without winning. By the end of the hour we played, he had progressed to cursing a blue streak in a voice as high-pitched as the stereotypical 13-year-old griefer.

Second, although I would have liked to have tried actual team tactics this time (with someone else as team captain giving orders), it couldn't be done. A--- had a crappy Internet connection up in Colorado (from Qwest), such that I typically could only hear half-second scraps of voice from him, now and then. Disappointing.

Third, I heard him at one point yelling at the opposing team that they, being in America, should speak American rather than Mexican. This struck me as wrong on many levels. I had little time, so I focussed on the one error of fact least likely to provoke an argument. I pointed out that the Internet is global, so he could easily find himself playing against Mexicans who play in Mexico. He should expect them to speak Spanish. He grumbled a reply to the effect of, "What's this country coming to?"

Last, I discovered that the practice of standby has life in it in Halo 3. For those unfamiliar with it, a cheater practices standbying by first becoming the host for the game round, then disconnecting from the Internet for a few seconds. During those few seconds all the other players get a "reconnecting to game" screen, and the cheater gets to run around in the game and kill people, take flags, and so on.

One can tell when one has a cheater using standby - as opposed to the game simply lagging due to poor connections - when one comes back from "reconnecting" and finds oneself and one's teammates dead, or finds the flag missing, and so on. That happened during one of the rounds I played last night.

I hesitate to report such things, because something similar can happen by accident, when a player with a poor connection also has host status, and simply keeps playing when the connection drops. I didn't find the event I witnessed blatant enough nor repeated enough for me to decide that the other team cheated.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Never Again I'll Go Sailing, GRID

After consulting a walkthrough and some forumites (forummers? forumians?), I came to the conclusion that Star Ocean: Till The End of Time has the hero spend the bulk of the game on medieval-level planets and stripped of his own starfaring culture's technology. It sprinkles some sci-fi in here and there, with a chunk at the beginning and another, larger one at the end, but for the most part it consists of straight-up swords-and-sorcery.

So into the archives it goes. I'll play it when I have no other games worth playing.

Now, as for GRID... it'll take a long time to get tired of that one. I did not have a lot of play time, so I ran the Muscle Car Classic again, and won handily. Tons of fun.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Bait and Switch

If you don't want story elements of Star Ocean: Till The End of Time spoiled for you, stop reading now.

I've had a couple more hours of Star Ocean 3, and I must say the game has left me bitterly disappointed. First, it confirmed my earlier suspicions by maintaining the same glacial pace as before. Second, it compounds the sin of including fantasy magic ("symbology") by stranding our young hero on a medieval planet (!) with elf-like natives (!!) oppressed by an evil wizard (!!!) (actually an advanced-technology human), stripped of his technology and with only his trusty sword (!!!!) for a weapon.

Thus the bait-and-switch of this article's title. I went in expecting science fiction and instead got medieval fantasy. At least Xenosaga had the decency to stay in science fiction land despite its use of "ether" effects.

I will give it one more chance; I will consult an online walkthrough to see whether the game detours briefly into medieval fantasy land or spends the bulk of its time there. If the former holds, I will grit my teeth and play through the medieval portion. If the latter holds, out it goes.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Star Ocean 3? More Like Ennui Ocean 3

I think that the publisher subtitled Star Ocean 3 with Till The End of Time not because the story takes the characters to the end of the universe, nor because the main characters have a love that lasts forever, but because it will take you that long to get through the interminable interactive cutscenes.

Seldom have I seen characters take so many words to say so little. And I found on many occasions that between snippets of conversation that the characters would pause. And do nothing. For 15 to 30 seconds. I kid you not. They did not emote. They did not make funny faces. They did not say things with body language. They did not engage in fisticuffs or greco-roman wrestling matches. They. Did. Nothing.


I said last time that I would be able to reach the first save point within five minutes of being handed control of the character. I made a mistake. It took more like half an hour. That doesn't count the half hour I spent in the battle tutorial. It was the cutscenes that slowed me down, including one that was mandatory for getting to the invasion event.

I have a theory about what happened. Play-testing revealed that players could complete the game in 20 hours. Marketing could not accept a length less than the 40 hours standard for RPGs. Some genius bigwig stood up in a focus group meeting and said, "I know! Cutscenes take up half our game's length. Let's just make them three times as long, and players will take 40 hours to get to the end." No one dared challenge the bigwig's logic, and so here we stand.

At this point, with a couple of hours of gameplay under my belt, I have trouble understanding the positive reviews this title garnered from the gaming press. Perhaps RPG reviewers, inured to this kind of padding, didn't even notice. Perhaps the publisher leaned on them to give good reviews. Or perhaps they were just such Square Enix fanboys that their slavish brand devotion colored their opinions and blinded them to the game's faults.

I don't know. What I do know is that I will give this game a couple more hours of gameplay to engage me, and if it does not, I'll put it on the list of games I give away to my friends.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Star Ocean, Last Remnant

Having seen a trailer for Star Ocean 4, and realizing the series consists of science fictional JRPGs, I decided I wanted to play them. I like science fictional RPGs. I found that the publisher had never released the first two entries in the series in the US, but had released the third, Star Ocean: Till The End of Time, for the PlayStation 2. And it had a very reasonable price at the local GameStop.

So I put it in the console, started it up, and spent the next hour wandering around the resort planet's hotel, talking to the inhabitants and barging into people's rooms. I had no idea of where I should go or what I should do. Finally I figured out how to get into the battle simulator (the game's combat tutorial), and when I left that the game proper began.

An unknown force attacked the planet, and the hotel residents (including my characters) teleported to an emergency transporter room. There I found a save point, used it, and that was the end of my free time for the evening.

I don't think that the hour I spent wandering means that the game has a slow pace, or that it gets off to a slow start. I think rather that it means that the game gives you a lot of not-very-important things to see and do at the outset. I will start the game over tonight and I expect to arrive at the save point no more than five minutes after I get control of the characters. Because this time I know what to do and where to go.

All this suggests that I wasted most of the time I spent playing and didn't learn much about the game (especially since I cut short the battle tutorial) or its story. That has some truth to it, though I did find out a couple of relevant facts.

First I found that the game has a battle system that uses auto-attack, much like Final Fantasy XII but without the seamless integration into the game world. One can pause the battle at any time to change the attack or use an item.

Second I found that one class of attacks makes use of "symbology". The game calls it that in order to avoid calling it "magic". As if nobody can figure that out. Why can't JRPG developers get away from using magic spells in their games? Other games have health packs for healing and guns for distance attacks...why can't these do that? The concept of nanotechnology for medicine has been around since at least the early 90s. I found this lazy reliance on magic one of the most disappointing things about Xenogears and Xenosaga - though they called it "ether" there.

I expect to have more to say about this title after I get futher in it tonight (and play through the battle tutorials!).

I came across the trailers for The Last Remnant again recently, and they reminded me of why I both anticipate and scorn this upcoming RPG. On the one hand, it looks very pretty and promises the kind of turn-based combat I like in a JRPG. On the other, one couplet in the first trailer sets my teeth on edge: "Who created those remnants? And for what purpose?"

If the localization team erred in translating those lines, that bothers me. If they didn't, it bothers me more. A translation error in the game's trailer suggests that more and worse will come in the game. If they translated it correctly, it suggests that the game developmers have no idea of what makes a remnant a remnant: a usually small part, member, or trace remaining of a larger whole. One does not create remnants; the destruction of the whole leaves them behind. Since the game's story revolves around remnants of an earlier civilization, this bodes ill for the game's nonsense factor.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Ahoy!

Last night I spent a little time playing Puzzle Pirates. Or perhaps I should say, reading Puzzle Pirates. I spent far more time reading the game's documentation and tutorials than I spent actually playing.

Once in the game, I spent most of my time learning how to manage my hut and booty, and wandering into the island's shops. Finally I rediscovered the mission interface, and accepted a mission to learn swordfighting. Having played that puzzle and losing to an NPP (non-player pirate), it was time to quit.

I learned two things from my reading of the documentation and my brief time in-game. First I found that the game has in it a lot to do, and second that I don't have to do everything.

I suppose that when I decided to try Puzzle Pirates I thought that it would just be a slightly enhanced multiplayer version of Puzzle Quest. Boy did I goof. It has a lot in it to do, from buying and selling on the islands, to manning duty stations on a ship, to building and owning ships and buildings, to taking on various levels of command authority (including fleet admiral or colonial governor), to participating in a naval blockade. And one can do many other things besides.

However, unlike many other MMOs, one need not spend most of one's time in these non-puzzling activities. Nor must one grind for hours, night after night, for experience points or gold. The player can engage in all the non-puzzle game activities if he wishes, or spend the bulk of his time with the puzzles. If she wishes, she can log on once or twice a week, play puzzles for twenty minutes, and quit. Tyler Durden, in Fight Club, said it very well: "You determine your own level of involvement."

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Pointless Levelling

I found myself too fatigued to enjoy GRID, so I played the less-demanding Puzzle Quest. I beat a two-headed ogre, and discovered that storyline opponents level up with the player. If I have a level of sixteen, my storyline opponent will also have a level of sixteen - or higher. This means that fighting random monsters in order to level up doesn't help.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Once More Unto The Breach, Dear Friends

Last night, feeling better, I looked for a game to enjoy. I considered all the trailers I'd been watching, all the games I own that I'd love to play again, and chose ... GRID.

Yeah, I chose the same new game I just started playing. Why? First, it doesn't require much in the way of brainpower. Second, I can play it in short sessions (like other racing games). Third, and most important, it rocks. Hard.

Not only did I choose the same game, I chose to run the same event again ... and again ... and again. I cannot win the Muscle Car Classic consistently yet, and I have so much fun with that two-race event that even if the game consisted entirely of that, I would still have many hours of enjoyment. It doesn't matter to me that doing so makes me go through season after season without any real progress in the game. I'm having too much fun.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Game Trailers Screen Saver

My medicine has made me too fatigued and sick the last few days to enjoy games (beyond the easy trance-like play of Bejeweled 2 in Endless Mode), so I have spent my play time in less demanding pursuits, such as books, TV, and movies. I have also re-watched some of my old Xbox 360 game trailers, and set about adding them to my office screen-saver.

I have a Windows Media screen-saver installed at work, and it plays a Windows Media Player playlist. The playlist I have for it consists of movie trailers, game trailers, and screenshots. Every once in a blue moon I add new items to it.

I used to get the trailers onto PC by using a video capture gadget, until I realized that I could get them faster, easier and with better quality by finding them on the Internet. Two websites - and - have been especially helpful in that regard. I download the trailers, then store them on my hard drive and flash drive.

Not Safe For Work trailers I do not take to the office. Any trailer with blood or gore, with too-scantily clad people, or with sexually suggestive visual content, stays on the home PC only. Foul language or sexually suggestive audio I don't worry about, as I set the screen-saver to play without sound.

And yeah, I know this pretty much guarantees I'll never have to turn in either my geek or nerd badges.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Gamer's Diary: Puzzle Pirates, #2

I logged into Puzzle Pirates again last night. Watch out for this gotcha (at least on Gutsy Ubuntu Linux): Resizing Puzzle Pirates to the size of your desktop paints you into a corner. The game lacks a full-screen option, and between its menu bar and the Ubuntu tool bars the stuff at the bottom of the game's window gets pushed off the screen - including the options button! I suppose I could have tracked down the config file and fixed it there, but turning on autohide for Ubuntu's toolbars brought enough of the window's bottom back onscreen to click on the options button. Moral of the story? Make Puzzle Pirates's window one size less than your desktop's height.

As I had planned, I abandoned the pirate crew I had foolishly joined the previous night and rejoined the Navy. I set about learning the various puzzle games, and found this nearly as frustrating as being on a real crew. Some of the games - it seemed to be the single-player ones - had a tutorial tab explaining how to play, but none of the multiplayer games I tried did.

What I would have found useful - but couldn't locate within the game - is some sort of centralized collection of puzzle instructions, the sort of thing one would find in a game manual. I did find it later in YPPedia on the game's website, but would have appreciated having the same information available in-game.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Gamer's Diary: Puzzle Pirates

In my quest for a MMORPG that doesn't suck, I decided to try Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates. A quick googling told me that a Linux version of the client exists, so I would not have to reboot to Windows or mess with Wine in order to play. Off I went to the website.

It pleased me to discover that I could play directly in the browser; Java powers the client. But what delighted me was clicking on the download link, and finding myself on a page with a link for downloading the Linux installer and instructions on how to run it. The website had detected my PC's operating system, and sent me to a page containing the appropriate installer. Now that I call good customer service.

A few minutes later, after a trouble-free install process and some tweaking of Ubuntu's menus to put the client launcher icon where I liked it, I was online and playing.

My first impression is that one spends the bulk of one's time playing the puzzles. I like this; it means that grinding levels presents a diversion rather than a chore, that the lack of story - and therefore of plot and of world-saving roles - becomes irrelevant, and combat has the fun of puzzle solving rather than the boredom of auto-attack.

The game has elements that do not thrill me as much. Some of the puzzles have Tetris at their core, and I dont like the real-time pressure this puts on the player. Of the other two I played, carpentry had a time-pressure element, and bilge pumping appeared not to. So off to the bilges I go then. Yarrr!

I also did not like that when I chose melee training, the game put me on a ship manned by players rather than NPCs. Almost immediately another ship attacked and I had to play a Tetris variant for the boarding action, without any time to read the instructions for the puzzle.

Now that ship's captain has made me a full member of the crew. As a result, I do not seem to have access to the tutorials any more. The next time I log on, I intend to leave that crew and find the training ship once more.

So, I have mixed feelings about Puzzle Pirates, but I mean to finish the tutorials and give it a few hours after that to engage my interest. If it fails I can always resort to the single-player game Puzzle Quest for my RPG/puzzle fun.

A quick note on Puzzle Quest: It joins the ranks of a growing number of games that don't penalize the player for losing or dying. I like this. For me it does not reduce the fun factor at all. In Puzzle Quest, when the player loses a battle not only is it not a game-over-restore-from-save, not only does the player not lose any items, weapons, or skills, but instead gains a small number of experience points. Terrific!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Gamer's DIary: Puzzle Quest

I spent much of last weekend working, so when I had time for a break, I wanted to play something requiring neither mental effort nor frantic button-mashing, something I could easily pause or quit when it was time to return to work. For that I usually play either Klondike Solitaire (on PC) or Bejeweled 2 (on Xbox Live Arcade or my PDA).

This time I wanted something a little different. So I chose Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords, a game I'd bought on Xbox Live Arcade a few months back and never played again. It got me hooked almost immediately.

When I first read descriptions of the game, I thought winning battles would consist merely of reaching a certain score on a Bejeweled-style board before running out of moves. To my pleasant surprise, I found the puzzle-based combat significantly deeper. Each jewel-match boosts mana or damages the enemy, and the player's character has spells that can have effects on the puzzle grid and the opposing party. One's character can also acquire skills, stats, weapons and items that modify the effects of matching gems or casting spells.

The game's seamless integration of classic RPG elements with Bejeweled-style puzzle solving will provide hours of enjoyment for fans of either genre. I highly recommend trying the demo either on PC or Xbox Live Arcade.

Why I don't play MMORPGs

MMOs resemble work too much. And they resemble real life too much.

The Grind. The producers can't possibly create 20-60 hours of good, fresh content a month with a $15 USD subscription fee, so they space out the content by making players slowly perform mind-numbingly repetitive tasks to get it. One endlessly battles the same enemies or harvests the same resources in hopes of finding something marginally worth keeping.

The Roles Not Played. I play video games in part to play the role of the hero or villain, to become for those hours the person who saves or destroys the village, the city, the country, his people, the world, the galaxy, the universe, or even the multiverse. To become someone that matters, someone who makes a difference, as opposed to real life, where most of us have the mundane fates of regular janes and joes and jobs that don't involve saving the world.

The structure of an MMO makes this impossible. Every player can't play the hero. Only one person or party can save the world; not everyone can become the best. As Syndrome said in The Incredibles, "[...]because when everyone is super, no one will be." I suppose you could instance the whole game world. And then you'd just have a single-player RPG online. With more grinding.

The Stories Not Told. This problem outweighs the others. The aforementioned grind/content issue limits story variety and depth. The inherent structure of an MMO (real-time play, PvP, and grouping) kill videogame storytelling conventions and make it difficult to tell a party-based story. What if a member crucial to a major plot point can't play when the other members of the party do? Ways may exist to counter these factors, but to my knowledge nobody today does it.

Apologists will reply that the player makes the story. They'll point to events like some of the great swindles in EVE Online or a particularly brutal crushing of an enemy in Ultima Online. Wrong.

The sort of events described have problems. First they occur only rarely, second they require unreasonable effort, third they have a dark side, and fourth they reek of banality.

These events merit attention because they occur so rarely. All but a tiny fraction of players will never experience events like these. Most players will simply grind their play time away for as long as they stay. I meant thiswhen I said MMOs too much resemble real life.

Then we come to the effort required. In order to have even a chance at that kind of epic win, the player will have to spend untold hours grinding to get a character with the necessary stats. I meant this, and the grind in general, when I said MMOs too much resemble work.

These events have a dark side: every epic win comes with an epic fail. Every gank has someone who got ganked. Every swindle comes with a number of people who got swindled. Every brutal crushing has a crushee. And in some games, merely recovering from such a blow can take months. Months that feel like work, not play. So for the majority of players that participate in these events, the story has an unhappy plot with a bad ending. Again, it too closely resembles real life. And work.

And finally we see the banality of it all. Most of these events have no plot, no theme, no interesting characters. They have just the gankers, the gankee, and the gank. The swindle comes closest of any of these to the requirements of a story, and only the swindler gets a good one.

The Battles Not Fought. In part, people play single-player RPGs - and videogames in general - for the fun of combat. Much of the fun in a single-player RPG lies in picking the right combination of party members, attacks, weapons, and spells to defeat the enemy party. Most MMOs have an auto-combat system that involves picking those things in advance, then when combat begins waiting for your character or the enemy's to win. It sucks all the fun out of fighting.

Abandon All Hope? Not yet. All of the problems I've outlined above may have solutions or work-arounds. Game producers can reduce grinding by making additional content unnecessary, by implementing procedurally generated content, by giving diminishing returns for levels, by introducing handicapping systems, and so on. MMOs can compensate for the lack of messianic roles by making more ordinary roles fun to play in other ways, perhaps by giving them cool and unique items and combat moves. They can fix the story problems by eliminating the need for stories, or make stories part of the environment without giving the player any crucial role. Lastly, no reason exists why MMOs cannot have interesting combat, whether turn-based or real-time, that more directly engages the player.

I have heard of some MMOs that solve one or more of these problems, and intend to look into them further. Guild Wars and Age of Conan are supposed to have interesting combat. Puzzle Pirates (which I mean to try) attempts to solve all the issues by making puzzle-solving the central activity, thus greatly reducing the impact on the player of grinding, roles, and story.

I welcome comments, especially those naming MMOs that have solved, reduced or avoided these problems.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Joysticks Fade Away

(Originally posted on Slashdot)

I think the demise of the joystick tracks the movement of gaming from a niche activity to the mainstream.

Specialized peripherals such as joysticks, driving wheels, trackballs, arcade knobs, and spinners are ideal for the specific game genres that need them, while gamepads (and on the PC, keyboard/mouse) are good enough in every genre while excelling in almost none of them.

The Atari 2600 was the first and last console to use a joystick instead of a gamepad, and that only because the gamepad hadn't been invented yet. If you look at the vast majority of Atari 2600 games, you'll find that they would have worked better with a gamepad.

So for inexpensive mainstream gaming, the default controller was always going to be something like a gamepad.

The PC, on the other hand, started as a niche market; you pretty much had to be a nerd to own one and be capable of operating it, and to game on one made you even more of a nerd. Marketing specialized peripherals to technophiles is easy. Marketing them to people who (as computers became cheaper and easier to use) bought computers for Internet connectivity and word processing and other practical purposes is considerably more difficult.

What's a joystick specialized for? Flight and space sims (including mechs). Some would say fighting games as well, though the preferred peripheral there is actually the arcade knob.

Those of us who enjoy flight sims sometimes have trouble grasping just how unnatural an act flying is for most people. The controls don't do what they would expect, and managing the flight envelope while trying to fight is just too alien.

And flight sims are complex beasts that require managing a myriad of controls and instruments. This is even true for some space sims - energy management in the X-Wing series is a good example. This begins to pass what most would consider play into the realm of work. Only the true fans will find joy in this kind of activity.

Joysticks have always been a niche market; it's just that PC gaming's earlier days were entirely the same niche market, so joysticks naturally dominated there. Now that gaming (both PC and console) is a more mainstream activity, game producers choose to produce games that target that mainstream, and one of the ways they do that is by making games that work well with the platform's default peripherals. That's why the last three significant PC space sims - Freelancer, Eve Online and Dark Star One - are designed for mouse and keyboard; the first two can't even be played with a joystick.

There is still a place for the joystick - committed flight sim fans will still want one (IL-2 Sturmovik, Pacific Fighters, Lock-On, Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator, and so on), it works well in games that have flying portions (like Battlefield), and games like Ace Combat 5 and 6 offered them as an optional add-on, but that place will remain as a niche peripheral for the forseeable future.

Game Saves Backup Quest - The Betrayal

This is a warning. Some third-party gaming accessories bear misleading, nigh-deceptive, and confusing product packaging. The two I bought recently certainly didn't do what I'd purchased them for, and can't be returned (clamshell packaging and GameStop's return policy).

I've been looking for ways to backup all my game saves to my PC. Experiences with bad media and accidental erasures have motivated me to preserve my saves. Since none of the platform manufacturers (Nintendo, Microsoft, Sony) provide means to do this, the only option is third-party accessories. I've had mixed fortune with them.

The two I just purchased are the ones that did nothing I wanted them for. They are:

  • Action Replay DS
  • GameShark GameBoy Advance SP
Both products are, I'm sure, fine for their intended purpose - using cheat codes to make games easier. However, when it comes to transferring saves to and from a PC, they turned out to be useless.

The DS product I got has a cable to attach to a PC and upload/download, but it doesn't transfer saves. It only transfers cheat codes. The product I needed (I think) was the Action Replay DS Max, since discontinued. So I ordered one from a reseller. It's a minor difference in the product name, but a huge difference in functionality.

Sadly, the product I got from the reseller was the AR DS, not the Max. I returned it three times, and each time got an AR DS as a replacement. Apparently they've put AR DS units where the Max units were supposed to go...maybe they thought no one would notice? I also tried several big box brick-and-mortar retailers and they also had the AR DS on the shelf where the sticker said AR DS Max. So the only way I'll ever get one is an Amazon used products seller or eBay.

The GBA product I got was even worse. On that one I had done some online research, and found in the product's specs a cable, and I'd found uploaded saves on labelled with the product's name. When I looked at the product package prior to purchase, on it was a claim that I could "join the online community" and download codes and game saves.

Imagine my surprise when I opened the clamshell packaging and found that the portions of it meant to hold the cable and driver disk were empty.

Only after digging around for a while on the Gameshark website was I able to find a buried FAQ entry that explained that later versions of the same product have had the transfer capability removed, purportedly in order to leave more room on the cheat device for codes. There is apparently no way to tell which version you're getting without opening the package.


I suppose I could have "joined the online community" and downloaded cheats and saves as the product packaging claimed... for all the good that would do me without a transfer cable.

Well, it wouldn't have worked anyway; the transfer cable plugs into the GBA link jack rather than the cheat device, and I have a DS, which does not include a GBA link in its design. That oversight is my own fault for not doing enough research, but it's rendered moot by the fact that the GameShark lacked a cable.

So I'm still looking for a device that will let me transfer GBA saves to and from a PC. The only other thing I've been able to find is one of the devices meant for pirating GBA roms. I'd rather not purchase such a thing, though my intended usage of it is legitimate.

So if you want to make backups of your DS and GBA game saves, avoid the Action Replay DS. Also avoid the GameShark GameBoy Advance SP, unless you have a GameBoy Advance and can be sure you're getting one of the older cable-equipped models. A solution for the DS might be the Action Replay DS Max. Caveat emptor.

Gamer's Diary - GRID, Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness


The kid had a softball game Thursday night (tie game and she caught a pop fly for an out), so instead of happily co-op-ing on Lego Indiana Jones, I had the flat to myself. I looked at my evening's agenda, and it had one word on it: GRID.

I spent several hours with it, interrupted only by supper and DVR'ed Battlestar Galactica, and I had a blast.

Simulation purists (or as I like to call them, sim snobs) may kvetch about the lack of perfect accuracy in the car physics and damage modelling. "Cry me a river," says I. It's fun, and it feels realistic enough to impart the sensation that I'm racing against other drivers, and that we're all beating the crap out of each other. And that's where it's at.

Let's face it - if all were simulated perfectly, most of us normal humans wouldn't be able to get the cars off the starting line, much less keep them on the track or win races. No, what we want is a physics and damage model accurate enough to make the game feel real, while forgiving enough to make it accessible to mortals. And that, GRID delivers.

Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness

Last weekend, I picked up a couple of titles in my continuing quest to replace my PC games with console equivalents. One was Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy, which performed much as I expected. The graphics weren't as pretty on the Xbox, but the gameplay was just as good. The other was Angel of Darkness.

Yeesh. More like Angel of Suckness.

I remember playing TRAoD on the PC when it came out, and being puzzled by the low reviews. I set the PC controls to the Lara-relative movement scheme, as I was familiar with it from all the other Tomb Raider games. With that scheme, it played very much like those games. No problem.

But then last weekend I played the PS2 version, and I understood where all the bad reviews came from. There were crappy textures. There were low-poly models. There was slowdown in inexplicable places. Controlling Lara was like trying to thread a needle while wearing catcher's mitts on both hands. And all this was apparent in the first five minutes of play.

Unlike the PC version, it isn't possible to choose a different control scheme; the player is locked into a camera-relative one. That would be okay if she reacted instantly and smoothly to inputs, as she does in Legend and Anniversary. Instead she very slowly turns to face in the direction the player pushes the stick, and then begins to run flat-out. This is particularly annoying when, for instance, one is trying to get her to turn around for a jump. Typically she will turn around, then instantly run off the edge to her doom. Engaging the walk function doesn't help, as she won't turn around with it engaged. And all that's just for starters.

By the time I'd gotten her to the roof, I was ready to throw the controller through the TV screen. Now I'm astonished that the review scores weren't lower. It's an unplayable mess.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Gamer's Diary - Lego Indiana Jones

Last night I brought home GRID and Lego Indiana Jones, both for the Xbox 360. Didn't get a chance to play GRID, as the evening was divided between a viewing of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and a co-op playthrough of the first level of Lego Indiana Jones.

I had the viewing in order to fill in a gap in my fiancée's daughter's pop-culture education. I would not have watched it for myself; Temple of Doom is the least of the Indiana Jones movies. After Marion Ravenwood, Willie Scott was a tremendous letdown. But the kid seemed to like the movie, and found Willie's idiocy hilarious. So what do I know?

Then she and I spent a while playing through the first level and part of the second of Lego Indiana Jones. What a hoot! The humor and the puzzles are all there. Traveller's Tales knocks it outta the park again. Just enough is changed from the movies to provide some real surprises while remaining true to its spirit, and some of the changes are just laugh-out-loud funny. I'm thinking in particular of Toht's medallion-burn, and a Star Wars reference that had us both rolling on the floor laughing.

GRID? Maybe tonight.