Abuse My Nipples Dot Biz
June 20, 2020 - 20 Games, 20 Lessons
As much as I love to talk about Mark Rosewater's Twenty Years, Twenty Lessons speech, it was really only a matter of time before I decided to rip it off. I don't quite have twenty years of experience as a modder/developer under my belt yet, however, and I'd be hard-pressed to tell you what I was doing 5 days ago let alone 5 years ago, so I took a slightly different approach. Today, we'll be looking at 20 of my favorite games of all time and seeing what we can take away from each one.
Spoiler for anyone who hasn't seen MaRo's speech: lesson number twenty is that they all tie together, making the entire presentation a cohesive whole that flows well from start to finish rather than just a list of unrelated points. I, on the other hand, am going to be very up-front with the fact that these lessons will be closely related, and as such there will be a lot of bleed-over from one point to the next. The other thing I want to get out of the way before we start is that this is by no means a definitive list of which games best demonstrate the principles we'll be discussing today - they're just games that have been influential to me. I'll be excluding Final Fantasy VI from this article since I've already written one dedicated to what it teaches us about how not to make a game, whereas today's examples will be (mostly) positive ones.
And so, without further ado...
Super Mario Bros. 2
"More Ways to Play"
People love to talk about how the original Super Mario Bros. completely revolutionized video games - and it did - but what goes largely undiscussed is just how truly groundbreaking its (true) sequel was. By providing the player with a choice of four different characters to play as, Super Mario Bros. 2 did something that few games of its time did and fewer still did well. Offering multiple ways for players to approach your game not only broadens its appeal to a wider audience by allowing them to choose the option which best suits their playstyle, but it also greatly enhances the replay value.
The key factor here is just how differently the characters all played from one another and the drastic impact your choice had on gameplay: nearly a decade before some blonde tart named Peach moved in on Mario, Princess Toadstool was kicking ass in the Mushroom Kingdom and floating all over the place while everyone else fell to their grisly deaths. Toad, meanwhile, was the choice for speedrunners and coin farmers alike since he offered speed and not much else, whereas Luigi specialized in skipping over huge swaths of many stages provided you could master his notoriously slippery jumping mechanics. Mario, ironically enough, was the most bland and uninteresting character in his own game, having since gone on to become the poster child for mediocrity in every aspect.
Like I said above, not every game did this well. Take Gauntlet on the NES, for example, where your options were to play as the elf or choose any of the other three characters and be promptly murdered by hordes of enemies that you can't outrun. The slow-moving warrior - touted as a character for beginners by developers who clearly either hate you or, more likely, haven't played their own game - is by far the hardest character to play as to the point that I questioned whether or not beating the game with him was even possible (apparently, it is). This is a classic case of all four characters being balanced in concept, but the stage design clearly favoring one attribute - speed, in this case - above everything else.
Sometimes, the characters aren't even balanced on paper, such as the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game on the NES. Unlike Super Mario Bros. 2 and Gauntlet, you could actually change your turtle on the fly, theoretically allowing you to choose whichever one was best suited to the current situation. Unfortunately, Donatello was the only one who could fight worth a damn so the only reason you'd ever swap him out was when you needed to swim through electric seaweed. This formula could have been really interesting with some fine-tuning, but unfortunately the series never returned to it, instead favoring the turtles handling mostly (or sometimes entirely) the same so that any choice of them is merely cosmetic.
Note that you needn't necessarily have multiple characters in your game in order to take something away from this lesson. Samus, Link, Simon Belmont, Mega Man, and Ryu are all the sole stars of their own adventures, but each has numerous skills and weapons which afford them a variety of ways to adapt to and approach each situation, similar to the intended effect of the original TMNT formula. But the important point of distinction to consider here is how easy it is for the player to change things up: allowing it at a moment's notice means that they will always be able to choose the ideal approach to a given scenario, whereas with Gauntlet you were stuck with whoever you picked for the entire game. And this is where Super Mario Bros. 2 really nails it by presenting the character select screen prior to each stage. This offers more options for variety throughout the game than locking the player into a single choice would while still forcing them to fully adapt to that character's playstyle rather than allowing them to switch to whoever is immediately convenient.
Heroes of Might & Magic
"Pros & Cons"
As we discussed above, the concept of multiple characters really only works when every option you're given is both viable and unique. This means that each character or team must have certain advantages and certain drawbacks. And while the Heroes series never completely perfected the balance amongst its various factions (something that almost no game ever manages to achieve, if we're being honest), it does a damn good job of it. More importantly, it has a firm grasp on the core concept that makes balance work at all - the above-mentioned pros and cons.
Take, for example, Heroes of Might & Magic 3: easily the best game in the series and widely regarded as one of the best games of all time. Necropolis is frequently banned in competitive play because, as Sseth Tzeentach so eloquently put it, "...if you let Necropolis breathe, it will shit down your neck." This small issue aside, they're otherwise a well-designed and thought-out faction with several drawbacks to counter-balance their positives: the undead can't benefit from morale and are a severe detriment to any living troops serving in the same army, their only ranged unit appears much later than any other faction, and they have arguably the weakest top-tier creature. So, despite the fact that Necropolis is overpowered, Inferno is trash, and Fortress is what everyone used to shit on before we realized that we hated Inferno even more, Heroes 3 has a fanatical following that to this day will hotly debate which of the remaining factions is truly the best.
An eternal debate amongst fans over which is the greatest character/faction in your game is one of the biggest signs that you did your job well as a Designer. As such, I went to great lengths to capture this essence when designing Brave New World: I had polls for players to report back on which characters they felt were the best and was constantly looking for ways to improve the ones who were seen as underpowered. Nerfing occurred much less frequently and was only utilized when a character or skill was so objectively good that it ruined the chance for everything else to shine. Generally speaking, my advice for balancing your game is going to be to look at whatever choice players like the most and establish that as the gold standard for how attractive all of the other options need to be.
But most importantly, remember that a choice is only a choice so long as there's some kind of drawback to picking it over something else. Consider two buttons, one which when pressed gives you a blowjob and the other gives you a blowjob and 100 dollars - nobody will ever press the first button. If, however, the buttons were labeled "blowjob" and "BEES!", I promise you some asshole is going to hit that second one. It may not be the hardest choice in the world for most people, but unlike the first example it actually is one (that is, unless you're this guy).
Breath of Fire 3
The first two Breath of Fire games were by-the-book JRPGs that hit all of the necessary check boxes and not a single thing more - adequate if you just needed a fix, but largely forgettable and completely skippable. The second game did attempt to break the mold somewhat with a few new mechanics like its shaman fusion system (itself a reworking of the only novel concept in the first game), varying battle formations, and allowing the player to build their own town, but to call these ideas half-baked would be entirely too generous. There's "rare" and there's "still mooing". There were sparks of something worthwhile there, however, and the massive quantum leap that was Breath of Fire 3 saw them all fully realized in what I consider to be one of the greatest RPGs of all time.
I could - and often do - go on and on about why Breath of Fire 3 is such an amazing game. The story, for those who care about that sort of thing, is interesting enough to keep you going. The compact cast allows for a stronger focus on their individual personalities and growth (again, if you care). The pacing is particularly strong for a JRPG with enough variety in the action to keep things from getting too stale, with the fishing minigame in particular standing out as an all-time testament to why every RPG needs to include them - sometimes, it ends up being the only good thing in your game. And it has perhaps one of the most unique soundtracks I've ever heard in a video game, mostly going for a jazzy atmosphere that can only be described as "chill as fuck", yet more often than not surprisingly upbeat.
Of course, none of this means a damn thing if the game can't deliver on the actual gameplay front, and that's what I want to talk about right now. Breath of Fire 3 is perhaps the single greatest inspiration behind Brave New World specifically due to its "master" system which allows you to customize the growth of your characters, albeit always with some sort of tradeoff. One might boost magical power at the expense of physical offense and defense while another would make your character much tankier but also very slow. It's not hard to see how this directly inspired Brave New World's character development system, which was designed with the philosophy that developing your characters is the core of what makes an RPG fun and the entire rest of the game should be designed around that. Case in point, just look back at Heroes of Might & Magic and consider how rewarding building up your heroes is compared to any other part of the game.
For an earlier example of this concept done well, let's look at the first game in the Seiken Densetsu series, more commonly known as Final Fantasy Adventure on the Game Boy. This game was way ahead of its time for a variety of reasons, most notably in that it allowed you to choose which stats you wanted to grow whenever your dude gained a level. This would in turn allow for vastly different experiences depending on which stat(s) you chose to focus on and is ultimately a much closer analog to Brave New World's stat growth system than Breath of Fire 3's more advanced master system is.
Is Breath of Fire 3 a perfect game? Of course not. For starters, the master system encourages players to keep their levels as low as possible until you meet said masters in order to maximize their benefits (Brave New World would address this exact same issue with Final Fantasy VI by creating an entirely separate leveling system for espers). In addition to that, magic is underpowered for most of the game, formations are still largely underdeveloped, the dragon gene system is more fun to screw around with than it is actually useful, and certain skills will pretty much let you break the shit out of it. But in spite of all of this, what keeps me coming back to this game time after time and has maintained my interest more than anything else throughout the years is imagining what king of crazy-ass character builds I can pull off next.
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
"Quality Over Quantity"
The one truly negative example in this article is for a game in whose modding community I've become something of a divisive figure. Depending on who you ask, I'm either a hard-nosed dictator who hates fun or one of the only modders out there who understands (or cares) how sucking fucking broken this game is. A cursory glance over the vast sea of mods available for Morrowind reveals a near-obsessive focus on two main things: graphics enhancement and adding more shit. Contrast this with the sizable (and largely non-English-speaking) modding community for Heroes of Might & Magic 3, where the focus is almost exclusively on perfecting what's already there rather than adding to it.
You see, Morrowind's problem is not and has never been a lack of shit, but rather an abundance of it. Bethesda's creative talents lie obviously in what Morrowind excels at: grand map design and lore. All of the actual gameplay content - spells, items, weapons, and so forth - was created on a massive scale with no purpose other than to fill up a game world that was, for its time, the largest we'd ever seen (save for its predecessor). Anything that had actual thought put into it was done so in the service of lore rather than gameplay, and when you clearly pay no attention whatsoever to how anything you're doing affects how your game plays, the obvious result is a huge mess that is very, very broken.
The problem here is that, just as with the world's many political woes, this isn't just an issue that exists on the developer side - there is a very real consumer mentality that is directly responsible for perpetuating its existence. Squaresoft has now released Final Fantasy VI four times, with at least two of those releases being objectively worse than the original, and has yet to fix a single damn thing wrong with the game outside of a single pointer error and a shoddy patch job for one of the most well-known bugs that doesn't even address the underlying mechanical issue. You can (and probably should) hold this against them, but also ask yourself why would they go to the effort of fixing the game - something that took me nearly a decade to do - when it's much easier to just toss in some halfassed "bonus" content with zero regard for how it fits into the game, thematically or otherwise, because people will still go out and buy it.
You deserve better. You don't deserve more, but you do deserve better. A small amount of well-balanced content with a lot of thought and care put into it will always win out over garbage, no matter how voluminous it may be. And please, for the love of all that is good and holy please stop asking me if we ever intend to port Brave New World over to the Advance or Steam versions because they have more content and that makes them somehow better. It doesn't. It really, really, doesn't.
The Guardian Legend
"The Product of its Parts"
Getting to my single allotted non-game example a lot sooner than MaRo did, I don't like musicals. I love music (albeit not the kind you tend to see in musicals) and I like a good show, so obviously I should dig musicals. The problem is that musicals are by and large inferior versions of the two things they mix: the music is terrible and decidedly un-metal, and the story is constantly being interrupted so the characters can sing a jaunty tune. Musicals bank so much on the novelty of being a combination of two different things that - at least in my opinion - they neglect to do either of those things well.
The Guardian Legend, easily the most obscure game on this list, is heralded by anyone who's ever played it as a hidden gem of the NES library. You play as a six-foot bitch with a gun and a lightsaber who can transform into a spaceship and there is absolutely no part of that premise that isn't totally sweet. If you ask any of its fans what makes it a great game, they'll more likely than not credit the fact that it's a hybrid-style game, mixing a top-down exploratory overworld (á la Zelda) with a vertical shooter. Basically, it's Blaster Master with a spaceship instead of a tank and the placement of the two genres inverted. And while this may be what makes TGL interesting and unique, it's not what makes it a great game.
The logical fallacy in play here is the same one as in the previous lesson: a game that has two genres has to be better than a game that only has one, right? This ultimately stems from the belief that a game, like most other things, must be equal to the sum of its parts. One plus one is two, but one times one is one, and when you mix an average game from one genre with an average game from another genre, you get... an average game. Conversely, if you were to mix, say, a sub-par action platformer with a building sim that's a little too bare-bones for its own good, the end result is actually worse than either one of them on their own. Take this concept to its logical extreme, and you basically end up with Action 52.
What makes The Guardian Legend a great game isn't that it mixes two styles of gameplay but that it does them both well. The shooter half in particular stands up perfectly fine on its own merits against others of its time - a password given upon completing the game even allows you to play through just the shooter stages. And for those familiar with the capabilities of the NES hardware, this game stands out as a real technical marvel. It is, quite simply, a bullet hell game on a system that can't handle bullet hell. TGL's real achievement wasn't that it had the idea to combine two different game styles - it was fact that it didn't make your NES burst into flames the moment you turned it on.
Donkey Kong Country 2
"Purpose in Exploration"
Video games almost universally have more to be done than what they require in order to be completed. For this example, I'm deliberately not using a game like Metroid or Zelda where exploration is the entire point, even if most of what you discover is optional, but rather a game that's structurally similar to Super Mario Brothers. Donkey Kong Country is your typical linear platforming fare - rush through the stage to get to the goal, trying not to get killed on the way. Both games offer deviations from the main path for the player to explore, but only DKC concretely rewards the player's curiosity.
The failure of the Mario Bros. games to incentivize thorough exploration of its stages is something that I discussed in a previous article and thus won't elaborate much on here. Donkey Kong Country (the second and third games in particular) doesn't just hide bonus rooms and special "DK" coins in its stages, but rewards the player for finding them all with a visual acknowledgement at first, access to the "true" final stages, and, ultimately, the best ending. Contrast to Super Mario Bros. where more often than not your only reward for traveling off the beaten path was a shitload of coins and the novelty of seeing a part of a stage that perhaps you'd never seen before.
It's important to note that the Donkey Kong Country games contain a complete analog to Mario's coins with bananas, but unlike Mario rarely presumes that they're something the player actually wants to find. Rather, bananas are used to hint at the presence of something the player does want to find, such as a hidden bonus room. There's a bit of wisdom in game development that you should never, ever put an empty room in your game, but if we expand on that we can also say that if you actually want players to go out of their way to find all of the rooms in your game, then don't fill them all with crap.
I've spoken at length on Super Metroid and the many lessons it has to offer in the past, so this section is going to be a little difficult to write without just repeating myself. Choosing just one lesson to represent the game, thankfully, was a lot easier: the hand of the developer should be always present, but never seen, much like your dick at a local sporting event or PTA meeting. As I've stated in so many words in the past, Super Metroid's greatest achievement was its ability to invite the player to drive the action of the game rather than overtly directing the action itself.
The art of invisibly directing the player manifests itself in two different forms depending on the intended goal: completing a game and mastering it. The former can be likened to a game of charades, doing everything within your power to show a player what you want them to do short of actually telling them. Super Metroid contains many examples of this: trapping you within deceptively small portions of the game world to make the path forward more apparent, requiring the use of new-found power-ups to escape the rooms in which they're obtained, and unceremoniously dumping you into a lake right after you find the power-up that eliminates the game's godawful water physics. Almost everything in Super Metroid is explained through subtext, and players end up feeling a greater sense of accomplishment as a result.
Directing a player to master your game, however, is a much different beast that requires a far more subtle approach. As I explained in the above-linked article, Super Metroid teaches you by literal example the two primary techniques which can be used to break the game but never openly directs you to use them that way. But this alone is not enough: breaking the game for shiggles is its own reward, but true mastery demands a metric by which to measure it. As with Donkey Kong Country, Super Metroid acknowledges the exploration efforts of players by telling them what percentage of its items they were able to locate after finishing the game. Very famously, it also records their time, thus providing the needed incentive to use the above-mentioned skills to finish the game as quickly as possible.
Metal Gear Solid
"The Human Response"
Hideo Kojima has a reputation in the video game world for two main things: being at least partially out of his fucking mind and an unparalleled ability to anticipate player behavior and stay one step ahead of them at all times. Metal Gear Solid is a wonderfully fun
movie game for a number of reasons - fun enough that an expanded version of its tutorial mode was sold as a standalone game - but that's not the most interesting thing about it from a design perspective. What really makes it fascinating and truly worth exploring is that the dev team thought of everything.
Human nature is an interesting thing. People like to push boundaries, to see how far they can bend things before they break. Hand a game to a specific type of person and they will deliberately do anything in their power to fuck it up. And this usually isn't too hard to do - the fact that games are just lines of code and not rational, thinking humans often makes them easy to exploit or, hell, just fuck with. Many designers begrudgingly accept these tendencies if for no other reason than they have to, but a select few go the other direction and embrace it.
People tend to act like complete jackasses in video games (the next game on this list is a glorious example of that) because it's fun and the inability of a computer to respond like a human is an effective equivalent to anonymity (see John Gabriel's Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory). With most games, this exchange has the same psychological impact as punching a guy in a coma: fun maybe the first few times but eventually kind of sad and boring when you realize that he can't fight back. Metal Gear Solid's most notable trait is that it has an answer for pretty much anything you decide to throw at it, thus making it infinitely more fun to screw with just to see how it will react.
Game design is very much an exercise in human psychology, however, and you needn't see this lesson as nothing more than an opportunity to fuck with players. Rather, every step of the design process should include questioning how a player would react to it. And once you have that answer, you can adjust your response according to your desired outcome.
Let's look back to Super Metroid. We've talked to death about how well-designed it is, but it's only able to be that way because it's able to anticipate how players will behave and react accordingly. For example, there's a second power bomb expansion hidden behind a power bomb wall right where you pick up your (intended) first set of power bombs. Now, many hidden items in the game have at least some kind of tell, sort of like how Donkey Kong Country uses bananas, but this particular one doesn't. It's by all accounts completely hidden with absolutely no hint as to its presence, but I've never seen a single player fail to find them. Why do you suppose that is?
It's simple - the power bombs you pick up in front of the wall are the first ones you get. The game knows that the first thing a player is going to do with them is set one off to see what happens, even though there's really no apparent reason to. The game predicted what the player would do in a given situation and made sure that the expected action resulted in the desired outcome, which in this case was a positive one; for a laundry list of negative ones, just play I Wanna Be The Guy.
It is, of course, possible to use negative reinforcement without being a troll about it. Consider Brave New World, which makes it so that only human enemies can be stolen from. You're told as much in the Beginner's School. In the very same room where you're told this is A) a save point (disabled as of 2.0), and B) a treasure chest containing a dinosaur. It doesn't take a psych major to figure out what more players than not end up trying in that fight, which is the perfect opportunity for me to drive home my point by having the Dinosaur retaliate with instant death (by Snu-Snu). This is just one of many ways in which Brave New World is vastly different from the original game, but players will go on playing as if it were the original game until something actively beats the complacency out of them.
Grand Theft Auto
Tycho of Penny Arcade once famously said, "I have a hard time with GTA. I find the total freedom paralyzing. When given the opportunity to do anything, I tend to do nothing". Thus is both the major strength and the most common plight of the wide-open sandbox genre. It's very easy to look at such a game and see something that's completely devoid of direction, but that couldn't possibly be farther from the truth.
Those who have played any GTA game know that they tend to do a very thorough job of telling you what to do in no unspecific terms. Yes, the onus is on the player to initiate the missions, but their trigger locations always appear on your map and you're clearly guided through the requirements of each one, often through the use of giant glowing markers and with all of the subtlety of a penis being dragged gently across your face. One might almost call it uncomfortably restrictive if not for the crucial fact that it's rarely demanded of the player to accomplish their objectives on the established terms.
For example, one of the earliest missions in San Andreas (my GTA of choice) has you hunting down a local crack dealer, killing him, taking his baseball bat, and using it to smash up a local crack den. Now that's all good and well, but there is absolutely nothing stopping you from grabbing a shotgun (or worse) and Arnold Schwarzeneggering the shit out of those crackheads. As the game progresses and more tools become available to the player through optional exploration, more creative alternative approaches to completing the storyline missions present themselves. And just as I once said of Super Metroid, the true beauty of GTA's design is that you're never fully certain where the line is between what the developers expected you to try and what was your own clever idea (although pulling out your AK and murdering everybody in sight is a viable option often enough that it's pretty clear they at least intended that much).
"The Joy of Movement"
It's seen as something of a design flaw in modern gaming to lack a fast-travel system in pretty much any game that has a map. The reasons for this are twofold: one, kids today don't have any damn patience, and two, bad design likes to use uneventful and pointless backtracking as a cheap way to pad out the game time. Fast-travel systems are fine in a limited capacity (i.e. not what Oblivion did), but the correct approach is to remove the incentive to use them as a default option.
As stated and elaborated upon in this interview with the developers, The Messenger was designed around the core philosophy of basic movement being inherently fun and rewarding. This makes perfect sense; if you want your game to be fun, you should probably make sure that the thing you spend 99% of it doing is fun. When you think about it, it's actually kind of amazing that some games out there manage to be fun at all when their fundamental movement mechanics are a bag of roasted, succulent dicks (though to be fair, we were willing to make a lot of concessions for 3D games back in 1996).
Let's go back to San Andreas for a minute. What a player chooses to do most often in a game that's all about the complete freedom to do whatever you want should tell us something, and while I can't speak for anyone else I will say I spend a not-insignificant amount of my time in San Andreas just driving around. And putting aside the fact that I hate driving, traffic, and, well, people in real life and thus find plowing through pedestrians at a steady 150 MPH to be cathartic, I've broken down the appeal into what I believe are its three primary ingredients.
Number one, San Andreas features motorcycles. And unlike in Vice City, motorcycles actually handle remarkably well in San Andreas - much better than cars, in fact. The difficulty of pretty much any mission in the game often boils down to whether or not I'm allowed to use my own vehicle, because they're unsurprisingly much easier and a lot more fun when I get to do them in my trusty PCJ-600 instead of some piece of crap that spins out on a dime and explodes after the tenth time you hit something with it. Number two is exploration: you could have the sweetest ride in the world, but if there's nowhere interesting to take it, your ass ain't going anywhere. Thankfully, San Andreas was considered revolutionary for its time in large part because it was the first game in the series to feature not just one major city, but three, as well as the surrounding countryside. Suffice it to say that you weren't ever hurting for anywhere fun to go.
The third ingredient is our X-factor, and it's actually one of GTA's main defining features: the radio. Jamming out to Lynyrd Skynyrd and listening to Axl Rose's supposedly incoherent rambling (in the spirit of Ozzy Osbourne watching This is Spinal Tap and not realizing it was a parody) has a visceral appeal that driving around in complete silence never will. The importance of a banging soundtrack to punctuate the player's movement can not be understated, and it's no mistake that the all-time greatest video game heroes do their thing to the beat of a tune that was specifically written to get you pumped. Just imagine how abysmal Castlevania 2 would have been without Bloody Tears.
So, let's actually talk about The Messenger now bearing all of this in mind. When I tell people to go play The Messenger because it's an amazing game, one of the things I'm always quick to mention is just how well it handles. It's not enough just that Ninja (his actual name) runs around doing totally sweet ninja shit - it's the direct role that the player has in making it happen, which is satisfying in a way that I really can't put into words. Regarding exploration, The Messenger's world is not only diverse and pretty, but was also very carefully crafted with Ninja's abilities in mind to facilitate swift navigation for skilled players. And as for the soundtrack, well... I'll just leave this here.
Might & Magic
"The Path not Taken"
The mainline Might & Magic series never quite achieved the same level of popularity as its spinoff, which is really kind of a shame when you consider how great the ninth entry could have been had 3DO not gone bankrupt during its production. This is the kind of game I cut my teeth on as a kid, which is to say that you chose your team at the beginning - generally with little to no clue about what a good team even consisted of - and that was it. You were stuck with those motherfuckers until you either finished the game or started over (which I did. A lot). A much more mainstream example of this formula is the original Final Fantasy, which I consider to be one of the only interesting things about an otherwise terrible game.
Note that this is distinct from what we discussed in lesson number one in that you're not choosing a single pre-defined character to play as, but rather building an entire party. There are countless possible combinations, some objectively more challenging than others, which is how this formula fosters a sense of replayability. But players don't just move past the party creation screen and forget those other choices even exist - they are constantly moving through and interacting with a game world designed around every choice it offers, all of which serve as a perpetual reminder of the road not taken.
Might & Magic VII in particular is one of my favorite games of all time, and you can't take two steps in it without finding a weapon or a skill teacher or even a quest-giver intended for a class you didn't take along. I've never made it more than halfway through this game without wondering how much different the experience would have been not only had I chosen a different team, but taken a different route. Despite being an open world game, Might & Magic is broken down into regions that take several days of game time to travel between. This is relevant because the game scores you in part based on how long it takes you to finish it, thus providing an incentive to combine trips and not dawdle.
This concept in particular is the reason I was so reluctant to add a re-spec system to Brave New World that would allow players to reset their esper level investments mid-game and rebuild their characters however they wanted. I felt that the ability to do this would rob the allure of different character builds of its power to encourage further playthroughs. What eventually tipped my hand and convinced me that it was the right decision is the fact that espers are things which are obtained over the course of the game rather than chosen from the very beginning, thus lacking an option to undo them encouraged players to simply make no investments at all for fear of making the wrong choice.
Consider that this lesson is, in essence, the most extreme form of branching paths - something which Might & Magic VII also features - since the decision is made at the beginning of the game rather than at some point during it. Any choice that a player makes which has permanent conseqeunces will have an emotional impact, but the effect will be stronger the earlier in the game that choice is made. Thus, while the decision to choose between light and darkness in Might & Magic VII does resonate with the player, it won't do so to nearly the same degree as their initial choice of characters will.
Dragon Warrior IV
"Familiarity in the Unknown"
Following the great crash of 1983, Nintendo famously revitalized the North American video game market with the help of a little robot named R.O.B. whose sole purpose was the downplay the fact that the NES was a video game console. People were understandably shifty about video games since the market had just imploded on itself, but they were perfectly comfortable with the prospect of buying what by all accounts appeared to be a toy. The lesson here is that people tend to be much happier with new things when they feel somehow familiar - hence the massive appeal of retro-style games.
On the surface, my choice of the fourth game in a long-running series for this example seems kind of obvious, but the reason I picked it has nothing to do with the fact that it's a sequel. Rather, its unique structure makes it an excellent example of this concept at work within a single game. Dragon Warrior IV takes place over five "chapters", the first four of which introduce you to all of the supporting characters, while the fifth - and by far the longest - sees the main protagonist travel the world and meet all of the characters from the previous chapters. And because these are all characters you're already familiar with from having played as them, there's an immediate rapport that you wouldn't otherwise have.
Exploring the world invokes a similar sense of nostalgia, since many of the locations you travel to will be places you've already been to. Done poorly, this approach will feel like recycling and forced backtracking to players. It's important that revisiting old areas be done from a fresh perspective, thus bringing something new to the table while maintaining that critical sense of familiarity. Santeem, for example, is a thriving kingdom when you begin chapter two that's eventually overrun by monsters and becomes the site of a major boss battle in chapter five.
A more subtle and far more common invocation of this concept is re-using enemies, either wholesale or with a fresh coat of paint, in different areas. As this is almost always done out of laziness rather than as a deliberate design choice, it's not generally seen as a good thing. But if your game has well-designed enemies that take time and effort to figure out, then the player will feel an immediate sense of comfort when they encounter a previously-seen enemy in a new and unfamiliar area as well as a strong sense of satisfaction when they use their previous experience to defeat that enemy in a new situation.
Just remember the golden rule that something about a familiar encounter has to be new. We recycle things because they're trash, and that's how they stay unless we do something to breathe new life into them.
Castlevania: Circle of the Moon
Forever living in the shadow of its predecessor, I am of the (apparently unpopular) opinion that Circle of the Moon represented a step forward from the legendary Symphony of the Night belied only by the fact that it was a handheld title being directly compared to one of those fancy CD-ROM games. Its list of improvements includes actually providing a challenge, vast reduction of Symphony's severe item bloat, and adding a fucking run button. And despite being confined to the GBA's sound hardware, it managed to have a damn snappy soundtrack (dat bassline, tho) that, while far from being competitive with its older sibling, was perfectly serviceable in its own right.
Circle's big claim to fame was its "DSS" system which allowed the player to combine various magical cards for different effects, of which there were 100 in total (combinations not cards). So many combinations meant that balance issues were inevitable, with many of them being utterly useless and others being retardedly overpowered. Thankfully, pretty much every combination in the latter category requires at least one of what I like to the "broken four", the last four cards which are all such a pain in the ass to obtain that they can be safely ignored in casual play for a much better overall experience.
Circle's biggest problem was arguably its over-reliance on RNG. It addressed the issue of inventory bloat from Symphony of the Night by replacing all hidden items in the castle with permanent stat boosts and by removing the shop. This means that everything - and that includes the DSS cards - can only appear when they're randomly dropped by enemies. If Circle of the Moon teaches you anything, it will be how to spot an effective farming point for each new enemy you encounter.
On the surface, it probably doesn't sound like I'm making a good case for this game. And if the above was all there was to it, you'd probably be right. Circle of the Moon clicked with me, but its flaws are readily apparent... at least until we get to the New Game+ modes, which allow us to look at the base game from a different perspective. Rather than the primary experience unto itself, "Vampire Killer" mode, as the first playthrough is called, can be seen as something of the "story" mode where the gameplay is relatively easy and you get a taste of everything that Circle of the Moon has to offer.
First up after your initial playthrough is "Magician" mode, wherein all of the DSS cards are given to you from the get-go and your magic power is virtually limitless. It's a good chance to fuck around with all of the cards and see what all you missed in your first playthrough since I guarantee you're not finding them all without a guide. In many respects it's your classic New Game+ mode with the twist that you die in one hit to pretty much anything since all of your other stats get tanked. Thus, you don't just get to play around with the broken four - the game makes you use them in order to survive.
Next up is "Fighter" mode, which on paper sounds like the boring one since you don't get cards at all - you just get massive stats and hit everything like a truck. This is arguably closer to a classic New Game+ mode than Magician is by virtue of being the easiest the lot. Because you don't have all of those fancy DSS combos you've spent the last two playthroughs coming to rely on, Fighter mode is where the various subweapons really have a chance to shine. I didn't mention them earlier because they really take a backseat to the DSS system for the most part, with only the cross and occasionally the holy water seeing any real use. With the rules changed up, however, they all get their time in the spotlight.
Of course, even in Fighter mode, the much-maligned knife is still a garbage weapon. Thankfully, it has an entire playthrough dedicated just to it: Shooter mode. Shooter mode murders all of your stats across the board, giving you only a near-limitless supply of subweapon ammo and a massive damage multiplier for all subweapons. One would assume that this is therefore the subweapon mode, except it's not (that would be Fighter mode). This is "spam the ever-loving shit out of the knife" mode. It's honestly not as fun in practice as it sounds in theory, but one very interesting thing I noted while playing is how I found myself using completely different DSS combos than in previous modes since the ones I typically favored just weren't any good here. Again, a different set of rules ends up highlighting a different set of mechanics.
Finally, we get to the definitive way to play Circle of the Moon: Thief mode. As with Shooter mode, all of your combat and magic stats are absolute shit. Your only saving grace is that RNG is no longer a problem - enemies drop items like the ladies drop their panties when I say "moist and creamy". In essence, it's a true "hard" mode with the single most frustrating aspect of the game voided as compensation. Were this one mode not included, I would still be forced to acquiesce that the game's RNG-heavy design was its single biggest flaw that dragged down an otherwise-stellar product. As it stands, the only room I see for improvement is to allose the player to randomize where the DSS cards appear, potentially letting certain overlooked combinations see some actual use by appearing earlier on.
And on that note...
Sid Meier's Civilization
Something that's become increasingly popular in recent years is randomizers for classic games such as Metroid, Zelda, Metroid and Zelda, and for some reason RPGs like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger. The appeal of a fresh spin on a game that you've beaten dozens of times should be obvious, especially if you read the two lessons above this one. It's no surprise, then, that some visionary developers baked this concept directly into their games without the need for external (and often janky) fan-made randomizers. And perhaps no series is more well-known for this than Sid Meier's Civilization.
Civilization is the chief representative of the "Four X" genre of games which have a large focus on exploration in the early stages to get into position for the rest of the game. As such, a randomly-generated map is kind of a necessary ingredient to keep things from getting very stale - not to mention unfairly easy - very fast. Civilization, of course, does have a random map generator, resulting in a completely different experience every time you play even before we take into account that the third game in the series (my personal favorite) was the first to make the civs all play differently from one another.
Of course, anyone who's ever played Civilization before knows that this fact isn't what these games are really known for. What's really led Sid Meier's Civilization to stand the true test of time leads us into our next point.
"What Lies Ahead"
The enduring legacy of the Civilization series is generally attributed to its addictive "one more turn" gameplay that's bitten every single one of its fans in the ass some point when they fired up a game just before bedtime only to get into it and then wonder when the sun came up. This is a rare form of carrot dangling that's largely exclusive to strategy games since it's entirely player-driven. Other games from different genres understandably want to capture that same level of addictiveness but inevitably fail because of the "square peg in a round hole" problem. Civ players aren't pressing forward with the manic fervor of a crack junkie looking for their next fix because they want to see what the game has in store for them - they're persisting because they want to see their grand plan realized.
Think of playing through stages of a game as binge-watching episodes of a television show. Unless you're either super tired or just love the sense of anticipation, you'll keep watching past episodes that end on a cliffhanger or "to be continued" until you reach a more comfortable stopping point. What makes strategy games so addicting is that said comfortable stopping point is always just barely out of reach, creating a sort of infinite feedback loop not entirely dissimilar from OCD. This happens because, as we established, the players are the ones dangling the carrots in front of themselves. When the creator is the one doing the dangling, as is most often the case, then the most valuable (and arguably only) tool at your disposal is to offer a taste of the future. This is why TV always used to have "next time on..." teasers until Netflix turned us all into a bunch of lazy, entitled slobs. Most games don't actively do this, but at least one of them does so inadvertently.
Enter Goldeneye 007 for the N64, which on the surface appears to have absolutely nothing to do with the topic at hand. It's a game best known for being one of the only licenced ventures that isn't total garbage (due to a combination of being developed by Rare and coming out nearly two years after the movie it's based on) and for eventually beating the shit out of that one friend who always picked Oddjob in multiplayer mode. The single-player mode was a lot of fun, but probably not the first thing you'd think of on the subject of baiting a player into... well, continuing to play. So what gives?
Simply put, Goldeneye's motivating factor lies in its difficulty structure. Most games with varying difficulty levels make the game harder by lowering player stats or making enemies harder to kill, while more sophisticated games might make enemies behave more intelligently or give them a wider variety of attacks. Goldeneye is fairly unique, at least for its time, in that the the most notable change from one difficulty level to the next is what it asks of the player.
Every stage in Goldeneye has certain objectives which must be completed in order to advance to the next one. On the lowest difficulty setting, only some of these objectives are required, with the rest of them appearing only on "Secret Agent" or "00 Agent" level. These objectives frequently involve areas that you'd have no reason to visit on "Agent" difficulty, and thus the exlporative player effectively creates their own preview of things to come by stumbling across them.
This is, of course, an isolated and rather unique example of the lesson at hand. In essence, the more you can design your game with the path ahead of the player in clear sight, the harder it will be for them to put down.
Long before the era of SNES RPGs sought to revolutionize gaming as an art form by telling epic stories in increasing lieu of, well, actually being games, there was Ninja Gaiden. Best remembered in the modern age for being ball-bustingly hard, Ninja Gaiden was actually quite notable for its time for actually telling a pretty cool (albeit trope-heavy) story that unfolded with each stage you completed. In an age of games where excuse plots were the norm and just managing to get from one level to the next was considered to be an achievement in its own right, your ongoing reward for persisting through Ninja Gaiden was the next chapter in the saga of Ryu Hayabusa vs.
That Ninja Gaiden's story existed primarily as a form of motivation to encourage players to finish a game that was considered brutally difficult even for its time is given. If the desire to find out whether or not Ryu ever did get it on with Irene didn't drive players to keep going past the 87th time a Goddamn bird knocked them back into a bottomless pit, then their own hubris would. The fact that people today remember the game for its difficulty far more than for its plot leads me to believe the latter, but unless I hop in my DeLorean and head back to 1989 it's hard to say for certain.
There is one thing, however, of which I am entirely certain. People today would remember Ninja Gaiden's plot - and not at all in a good way - had it taken a cue from modern game design and not allowed players to skip its cutscenes (or worse, had it made you re-watch them every time you died). Now, I want you to take a moment and really think about this for a second: the designers of one of the very first mainstream console platformers with a grand story to tell had the faith in themselves to not force players to watch what they probably put a lot of effort into creating and/or the common sense to know that doing so would make players hate them more than they already do.
Let's put it this way, if I do something good and you reward me with a taco it makes me a happy BTB and I want to continue doing good things so that you give me more tacos. If, however, I do a good thing and you stuff tacos down my throat until I choke I hate you and now I don't like tacos anymore. Fuck you for ruining tacos for me, asshole.
The 7th Saga
"Spank me Harder, Daddy"
I could write an entire article covering what this game does right and what it does very, very wrong. There's really no in-between here: everything about the 7th Saga is either a shining example of something that most other RPGs never get right or a Goddamn trainwreck. It's thus a game that demands critical analysis, because there's a lot of takeaway here.
To address the elephant in the room - as well as that catchy subtitle up there - anyone who's familiar with the 7th Saga in passing knows exactly one thing about it: it's harder than fucking balls and playing it is an exercise in self-aimed schadenfreude. This is a game that's brutally - and more often than not unfairly - difficult for a number of reasons that will be held against it, but the underlying fundamentals of its actually fair difficulty are sound. While most RPGs lean toward the "hold A to win" end of the difficulty spectrum, the 7th Saga requires your full attention for pretty much every battle from the lowliest trash mob all the way to the final boss. This is actually a good thing; what's not good is the reasons why many battles end up being more difficult than they need to be. And much like I Wanna Be The Guy, the 7th Saga gets an unfairly bad rap in part because it's hard to see where the bullshit stops and the real challenge begins.
So, what's the bad? According to the average player, the bad is that the 7th Saga is an excessively grind-heavy game, requiring hours of investment just to not get murdered walking to the next area. And this is technically true, but not fully accurate. The 7th Saga is seen as grindy simply because players can't think of any other way to overcome its challenges. The truth is that the game is easily beatable at a far lower level than most players think, but "easily" really only comes into play by exploiting knowledge that the average player can't possibly be expected to know.
First off, speed is a god stat beyond all reason, governing both accuracy and evasion of physical and magical attacks, thus making it essentially impossible to even hit anything that's too out of your league while they beat you down with complete impunity. This clearly favors the faster characters (Lejes, Esuna, Valsu, and Wilme) over the slower ones (Kamil, Olvan, and Lux); in fact, a good litmus test to see if the person you're talking to actually knows as much about this game as they claim to is to ask them if they think Lejes is just a shitty version of Kamil. This much alone is bad, but what really drives the knife into the player's back is the fact that stat gains on level-up are randomized. Thus, your two options are to save scum for maximum speed boosts or just say "fuck it" and grind to the point where your excess levels make up the shortfall.
The other major piece of bullshit is that some of the best equipment in the game can only be found by searching completely nondescript tiles in places that no sane person ever would look (Enix is particularly fond of this specific brand of bullshit for some reason). If you take just this piece of knowledge (using a guide to find said items) along with what I said above, the bullshit difficulty gets cut nearly in half. Where things get interesting is in the real difficulty.
As stated above, the 7th Saga demands the player's attention and planning even for battles with random trash mobs. This goes against the player's expectations that trash mobs should be... well, trash. Status buffs and debuffs, things that most RPGs rarely utilize well and most players have been trained to expect not to be helpful at all, will see use in more battles than not. Another ingrained player mindset that the 7th Saga actively punishes is the desire to completely clear out every dungeon you explore, even if doing so gets you killed (and it will). Several dungeons actually lose their enemies after defeating the boss, allowing you to go back after the fact and easily loot them, while others are just infinitely easier to go back and finish off once you've advanced farther in the game and gotten better equipment.
There's also the infamous North American stat bug, which I'm honestly only bringing up because it's the most common target for criticism and somebody will probably bitch if I don't. The short explanation is that the other apprentices in the game gain more stats when they level up than you do, causing them to eventually far overpower you. This is bad because there's two points in the game where you have to fight them, causing players to complain that the game is punishing the very grinding that it requires. I consider the bug to be a wash for several reasons: the first apprentice you fight has a static level and the second one is technically optional since it's possible for them to join you instead, the stat bug is insignificant at lower levels and only becomes a serious problem much later than you're likely still fighting the other apprentices, and the optimal strategy for fighting them is set in stone. Grinding to a true fail-state is much harder than players believe, and even that can be circumvented either by grinding some more until you catch up (since your rivals will eventually hit the cap) or get them to fight your partner, instead (given that any ally you recruit will also have the unfairly boosted stats).
Hopefully, you can see the difference between the two types of difficulty being discussed here, because difficulty in a game is not a bad thing provided it's the right kind. Brave New World actually takes quite a few design cues from the 7th Saga with regards to difficulty and it shows: both will kill you without mercy if you blindly adhere to established convention rather than exploring all of the options available to you. And on the subject of bucking trends...
Following the release of Final Fantasy 2 in Japan, lead designer Akitoshi Kawazu was given his own project separate from the Final Fantasy series. This was, as one reviewer put it, "...sort of like that Simpsons gag where Marge bakes a special cake for Homer to ruin". The clunky stat-growth system that eschewed traditional levels and instead encouraged players to get stronger by hitting themselves was not exactly what one would call "well-received". It was, however, a serviceable prototype for what would eventually go on to become the SaGa series.
There's an old bit of wisdom that states one must know the rules before one can break them, and I think that's very true here. Don't ever be afraid to venture off the beaten path, but bring along a compass if you do. In other words, if you're going to buck an established trend, make sure you understand why that trend exists in the first place and how to account for it. And most of all, accept that part of the experimentation process is failure.
As stated above, the SaGa series does not utilize a traditional leveling system. This has varying results from game to game. The most common symptom is an extremely steep learning curve: players who are used to becoming more powerful just by beating things up are faced with a system that's a tad more complicated and tend to not realize how far behind they've fallen until they've advanced far enough into the game to be way in over their heads. The Romancing SaGa trilogy in particular compounds this issue with its timed events system, effectively punishing grinding by locking out quests and potentially letting unaware players get themselves into a very bad (albeit not hopelessly unwinnable) position.
On the flip-side, players who do figure out the notoriously obtuse mechanics of a SaGa game will often find it to be quite exploitable. It's possible, for example, to start out with a "monster"-class character in the first game and advance it to its second-most powerful form before ever leaving the first world. And the original trilogy is actually the less exploitable one. Romancing SaGa 3, for as interesting and novel as it was, is one of the most depressingly easy and simplistic games in existence once you figure out a few key things about how its systems work. And these exploits are only possible because SaGa trashes the tried-and-true system for measuring - and in some cases, limiting - character growth.
Arguably the highest point of the series was the PS2 remake of the original Romancing SaGa. It's still got some definite flaws, for sure, much like every other game on this list that I dearly love. But it's something unique and interesting that's worth checking out if for no other reason than for the ideas it brings to the table (also, the hilariously shitty voice acting).
Zelda: Oracle of Ages
"Learning from the Past"
Truth be told, Seasons is the game I like better, but I couldn't pass up the delicious wordplay on the subtitle. I initially wanted to use The Adventure of Link (one of my all-time favorite games) as my representation for the Zelda series on this list, but I ultimately had to cut it since my biggest takeaway from it was the lesson we just covered with SaGa. So instead, we're looking at what are in my opinion the two best games in the series for the follow-up/counterpoint lesson.
Notably developed externally by Capcom instead of Nintendo, the Oracle games were also the first Zelda titles to be built on an existing engine. One might expect that the only game in a long-running series handled by a different developer might be the one to try something radically different, but surprisingly enough it went in the exact opposite direction. Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel as pretty much every Zelda title up to that point had, Capcom instead looked over the existing games, hand-picked what worked best, and combined all of those elements into an amazing final product(s).
This isn't to say that the Oracle games weren't innovative at all - they did have their individual gimmicks, the dual-game/combo aspect was pretty neat (certainly better than Pokemon's take on the idea, at any rate), and the magnetic gloves are probably one of the most interesting items I've ever seen in any Zelda game. But ultimately, Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages are great Zelda games simply because they looked at the past experience of the series and learned from it, sticking with the concepts that worked (the engine is virtually unchanged from Link's Awakening), fixed up what needed fixing (namely the economy), and left behind the things that were best forgotten (RIP half of LttP's inventory).
If I could pick any one series in existence to get the "Oracle" treatment, it would be without a doubt the Seiken Densetsu games (AKA the "Mana" series). I already mentioned Final Fantasy Adventure earlier, which was far and away the most solid title on the whole. Everything else is bits and pieces of an amazing game - Secret of Mana's stage design, SD3's character and class system, Sword of Mana's spellcasting mechanics, Legend of Mana's bomb-ass soundtrack - just none of them in the same game at once. Here's to hoping that one day, Oracle of Mana will come and set everything straight.
"Beauty in Simplicity"
There's honestly a whole lot of games I could have chosen for this spot without changing the message one bit, including any Mario Kart or Mario Party game, Super Smash Bros. (the first one, anyway), any number of those games that are just a collection of mini-games (Wario Ware is the most well-known, but I prefer Bomberman Land), or even just plain old Freecell. I ultimately went with Tetris because it's the most iconic example of the point I want to close out on: you don't have to do something incredibly complicated in order to make a great game. Some of the greatest and most enduring game concepts out there are as simple as they come, and there's absolutely nothing wrong finding joy in them.
If all you have is a simple idea, that's fine. Experiment with it and see where it takes you. Even the most complex games in this article, like Heroes of Might & Magic and Civilization, all started out as pretty basic concepts that grew over time because their creators believed in them - and now they're celebrated as some of the greatest games of all time.
I knew when I started writing this piece that the ending was going be something of a cop-out; after 19 lessons from the mind of a game designer, I wanted to end with one from the heart. Don't make a game just because you want to make a game - make a game because there's a game that you wish existed but it doesn't. The final lesson is that you don't need me to tell you any of this, you just have to look inside yourself and make the game that, above all else, you want to play.
June 02, 2020 - The Score Of Your Life
I wrote an article last year examining five popular game franchises through the lens of a proposed litmus test for good design with the intention of eventually writing a follow-up piece covering other games. I had two particular series(...es?) in mind at that point, both of which were originally intended to appear in that article but were ultimately cut: Castlevania and Ninja Gaiden. Further reflection on what to say about these games led me to the conclusion that what I really wanted to talk about were two specific game mechanics: lives and scoring. Both were briefly discussed there as evolutionary leftovers in the Mario series, but today we're going to look at the reason they exist and how they still live on today.
To understand the purpose of these mechanics, we must look at them in the context of the era of their inception: ye olde Arcade days. The earliest games had no true ending (Pac-Man's infamous kill screen notwithstanding), and thus the goal was simply to attain the highest possible score. The limiting factor to this end was your limited number of lives: you could only keep earning points until they were all gone, at which point it was game over. These two mechanics worked in tandem, requiring one another to achieve the desired effect, and were unable to adapt when the goal of video games shifted from an endless test of endurance to true completion. Their fate is perhaps most apparent in the Mario series, where they languished in irrelevance for several console generations before quietly disappearing into the ether.
So why keep around a mechanic that's clearly outdated and no longer serves any purpose? In a word: marketing. The video game industry was still reeling from the great crash of 1983, which meant that any attempt to recreate the home console market was going to require thorough innovation disguised as something old and familiar. Many early Nintendo games were arcade-style games if not straight-up ports, while the few that pushed the envelope retained certain key features for which there was a certain cultural expectation - even if their inclusion no longer made sense.
To say that these mechanics are dead and gone in the modern world, however, would be incorrect. They continue to exist even in their most primitive forms, depending on the genre. Pinball has always been my favorite example of the lives and scoring system in perhaps its most distilled form: no matter how much it evolves to include goals beyond mere survival, pinball is still ultimately about getting the highest score you can before you lose all of your balls. Sports games are also one of the greatest and most enduring examples of a relevant scoring mechanic, whereas specific sports like baseball and (American) football also provide variants of lives in the form of outs and downs.
The fundamental purpose of lives and scoring also live on in most other genres, albeit in far more evolved forms than in the above examples. I've written in the past that one of the key innovations made by Super Metroid was the provision of a means by which to measure a player's performance beyond merely completing the game. This differs importantly from the scoring systems to be found in Super Mario Bros., Castlevania, or Ninja Gaiden in that it was a meaningful representation of a player's skill and efforts rather than a superfluous inclusion made out of sheer formality.
Acquiring points in Castlevania, for example, either by killing enemies or getting them from candles instead of something actually useful, is an extremely trivial matter that pales in comparison to the accomplishment of just managing to beat a game that seems almost purposefully designed to make players cry. Of very important note is the fact that Castlevania and Ninja Gaiden both pushed the lives mechanic one step farther toward its demise by allowing an infinite number of continues after a game over rather than eventually sending the player back to the beginning of the game, á la Super Mario. This meant that, aside from the inconvenience of having to replay the notoriously difficult stage 6-2 of Ninja Gaiden if you happened to eat it in 6-3, the only real penalty for losing all of your lives was that it reset your score to zero. It's possible that some developer somewhere envisioned a world where super-talented players grew bored with just kicking Jacquio's ass and began playing for score, but the idea never caught on and thus we see here lives and scoring dragging one other down with themselves as they both die a slow and painful death following the collapse of their symbiotic relationship.
However, much like any character in a Joss Whedon show, major video game concepts have a tendency to not stay dead. The very first Metroid game rewarded the player with the best ending for beating the game in under an hour (not counting the super-secret "nude" ending you got for beating it in less than fifteen minutes) and would eventually inspire both minimalist and 100% completion runs in pursuit of this goal, but it was Super Metroid that took the important step of recording both the player's time spent playing and item collection percentage for posterity. Seemingly little more than a novelty at the time, this was in essence the mainstream rebirth of the scoring system. Lives would follow, at least in some form, but it would take a much more abstract path.
The concept of being punished for failure is largely frowned upon in modern game design, and sufficient technology to allow players to save their progress - and thus reload upon failure - at literally any point in time renders such punishment nigh-impossible to enforce even if we wanted to. Short of competitive multiplayer games where save scumming simply isn't an option, the core principle that the lives mechanic once enforced (ostensibly as a means to get you to insert more quarters, lest we forget) is seen in modern gaming almost exclusively as an obstacle to attaining the present-day equivalent of a high score. This means that the casual player who simply wants to complete the game has little to no meaningful interaction with such mechanics at all, whereas a speedrunner deals with them in their most extreme form given that any (unintentional) loss of life is a penalty to their goal of finishing the game in the lowest possible amount of time.
Speedrunning, however, despite its ubiquity in the modern gaming world, remains a largely self-imposed (i.e. fan-created) challenge rather than one set forth by the game developers themselves. And in some respects, this is probably for the best; while many modern developers are known for working closely with the speedrunning community, the contrast between Super Metroid and Zero Mission shows us why it's a bad idea to design your game too transparently with those types of players in mind. Achievements effectively function as sort of a developer-intended equivalent, but their binary nature discards a key component of the scoring system that prevents it from having the same impact. Even a game with hundreds of crazy-ass achievements that no player will ever realistically attain still doesn't judge you on how well you pull off your accomplishment, only that you did. And just as how a school issuing only "pass" or "fail" grades places the illustrious "A+" ranking in an unobtainable position, so too does the achievement system ultimately fall short of its apparent mark.
So what, then, is a true modern example of these concepts put to effective use? Let us finally look at a game I talk about a lot but have yet to get around to writing specifically about: The Messenger. If you haven't heard of or played this game, please stop reading this article and go check it out. And if you can take my advice at face value, don't watch the trailer or read anything about it - just dive right in. The trailer and various promotional concerns spoil much and The Messenger is, albeit not to the same degree as Undertale, a game best experienced completely blind. I've long thought on how to best summarize a pitch for the game into a single sentence, and this is where I've landed: if you watch a player of even minimal skill playing The Messenger beyond the first few stages, it looks almost unapproachably difficult. This game was designed around a core philosophy of basic movement being fun, and what you can't see from just watching it is how well it eases you into its mechanics and how smoothly it handles. Everything else - including the kickass soundtrack - is just gravy.
The Messenger has no score to speak of and not only eschews the traditional "lives" mechanic, but openly mocks it. Death is extremely forgiving in The Messenger, sending you back only to the last save point - which are placed liberally throughout the game - and sending a
delightfully jerkish demon to make fun of you, revive you, and take his payment in the form of whatever time shards (in-game currency) you collect for the next minute or so. This usually consists mostly of whatever "extra" shards you grab on your way back to where you died, so it's rarely if ever a net loss. Even then, you could just set the controller down and wait out the timer if you were so inclined, but this system is beyond graceful to the point where the player needn't even consider resorting to such tactics.
Much like Super Metroid before it, The Messenger is a relatively easy game from a casual standpoint, only taking off its gloves to beat down the people who play it for score - and beat you down it will. With Super Metroid, the challenge was merely implied rather than outright stated: you got told when you beat the game how long it took you and how many items you found, and the onus was on the player to interpret what to do with that information. The Messenger, by contrast, throws down its gauntlet much less subtly in the form of its New Game+ mode. Traditionally little more than a vehicle for players to fuck around with a game after beating it by giving them all of the upgrades at the outset, the New Game+ mechanic has been realized in more recent years as a method to offer a greater challenge. This concept in and of itself is nothing new, of course, so why bring up The Messenger specifically to demonstrate it?
The Messenger's New Game+ mode does several things: bosses take more damage to kill, Ninja takes fewer hits to kill, and the price for death must now be paid up-front or else it's game over. As a concession, you're allowed to select one item that's required to finish the game to start off with, thus reducing the length of your journey by... well, a pretty insignificant amount, at least at first. If you complete this mode, you advance to the next cycle wherein you can select a second item to begin with. Of course, the challenge also increases: bosses take even more damage to kill, Ninja becomes even more fragile, and the cost for death goes up. You eventually reach a point of playing through a significantly abridged version of the base game, but are required to do so flawlessly since you'll die to one hit from anything and the cost of revival is prohibitive beyond reason. And if you do die - and you eventually will - it's all the way back to the first New Game+ cycle with you.
In this regard, The Messenger manages to be both a highly-approachable casual game and a test of endurance and skill that hearkens back to the arcade days when the only goal was to see how far you could make it without dying. There is no definitive end to the number of New Game+ cycles one can reach, but the current record falls far short of the theoretical maximum of 999. Because of this, it satisfies the needs of a proper score mechanic by adequately ranking a player's performance while sending the player back to the first cycle when they finally lose fulfils the duties of lives.
And so, as we come full circle back to the original function of these outdated mechanics, one wonders where we'll go from here. While the lives and scoring systems are (mostly) dead and gone as we once knew them, the basic principles that they embody are here to stay. Players will always want challenge and they will always need a way to measure just how massive their gaming dick is compared to other players' gaming dicks. And developers, in turn, will always need some kind of system in place to stop players from whipping out their massive gaming dicks and going on some kind of a dick-slapping rampage without any sort of consequences for their actions. If scoring is the challenge, then lives are the rules of that challenge. And with all of these dicks flopping around, you're definitely going to want some rules in place.
February 12, 2020 - This Ain't Your Daddy's Final Fantasy
It's been over a month now since I initially released the 2.0 update of Brave New World, foolishly thinking at the time that I was finally done with it and would be ready to move on to other ventures. Since then, my life has abeen a near-constant stream of hanging out on Twitch and watching people play it, making quite a few new friends in the process. And although the bar of stream quality I've seen has raised substantially as of late, perhaps none of them have been quite as interesting to me as the playthrough of one particular individual by the name of Jehrman. What makes him so special is that, unlike anyone else I've ever witnessed playing through my hack, this guy has never played the original game before.
There's a prevailing notion about ROMhacks that they are designed exclusively by and for veterans of the original game and that you must experience the original in its virgin form before exploring anything from the fan community. I find this belief almost insulting on further review since these same people have no problem claiming that, say, the official remake of the original Metroid completely supplants the original even for a new player. Were it not for AM2R finding itself worthy of this same praise from the Metroid fanbase, I'd consider it a slight against the fangame community as a whole. As it stands, I consider it to be mostly a case of die-hard purists likening Brave New World's dialogue changes to actually changing the plot of the original game (or worse). It's almost as if people who get their panties in a twist over a couple of pop culture references in my hack have completely forgotten that the original game contained a Beavis & Butt-Head reference.
But I'm not here to beat that dead horse. As always, I'm here today to talk about gameplay. One of the biggest and only pieces of advice that our community gives to new players is, "forget everything you know about the original game," which is easier said than done. Brave New World fixes every major bug and most minor bugs present in Final Fantasy VI, which is easy for a new player to interpret as, "ok, so Vanish/Doom won't work anymore." That same player often reaches the first undead boss of the game and tries to OHKO it by tossing a Phoenix Down at it, sometimes being genuinely surprised that it doesn't work. The takeaway from this is that you can tell players something they need to know until the heat death of the universe, just as I do in the Beginner's School at Narshe and how any modern game will do by emtombing you in tutorials, but it will ultimately fall on deaf ears if you fail to convey the same message through your game design.
Brave New World spends the entire first act of the game actively attempting to beat bad habits from the original game out of the player, which is specifically why somebody with no bad habits to unlearn will have a much easier time. One of the biggest and most overarching lessons that the player is taught is that, unlike the original game, status effects are now an important of aspect combat if you wish to survive (this is a subject I have spoken at length on in the past). And simply telling players this does fuck all to counteract a lifetime of experience with the JRPG genre as a whole having taught us otherwise - it must be actively demonstrated. Brave New World does this early on in the Mt. Koltz area, where the random encounters represent a significant step up in difficulty from everything you've faced thus far.
At this point, the party's primary attack is Edgar's Auto(matic) crossbow, which hits every enemy on the field and doesn't consume any resources like Terra's magic does. Edgar's only other tool at this point is the Noiseblaster, which confuses enemies instead of damaging them and thus was largely ignored in the original game since, as we all know, direct offense is the best and only solution to all of life's problems. Players in Brave New World quickly discover, however, that simply rushing headlong into combat is rather painful and that the Noiseblaster will go a long way toward mitigating that pain. And to further drive this point home, players will also discover that Terra's directly offensive magic has the additional benefit in this area of confusing the large, mammoth-like creatures that will hit you like a fucking truck once they've taken any damage. Clearly, the game is trying to send a message here. And unfortunately, many players take that message to be, "well, I guess I'd be confused too if a naked pink lady set me on fire with her mind."
Fast forward to later in the game and we begin to see why these early-game lessons are so important. Players encounter behemoths who take a lot of punishment to bring down and start using a devastating attack as their health lowers, ultimately using nothing but that attack at the final threshold. A player who has not learned the intended lessons at this point will see this and immediately deem it to be unfair since there's no way that they can tell to mitigate this damage and the inevitable "cheap" death that follows. Despite being taught earlier that status effects can and will make battles easier, many players continue to follow what they already know, which in this case is that any sufficiently powerful enemy will not be vulnerable to them. Other players may try, but will do so with only the most powerful status effects (confusion, sleep, etc.) while ignoring the "lesser" ones that wouldn't be worth using against a weaker opponent but do a lot to make the beefier ones more manageable. And even if we discount status effects entirely, players also often fail to observe the attack pattern, which again is something that was taught earlier. Given that behemoths will only use their most powerful attack after taking damage, we can conclude that it's far safer to dispatch them individually rather than approaching them with mass attacks as the player is instinctively inclined to do.
Bearing this in mind, let's return to the early game. There is a minor - and unfixed as of this writing - bug/exploit wherein the player can heal themselves of the poison and blind status effects by equipping gear that prevents those statuses rather than using the intended curative items to do so. I've proposed a fix for the next update that has drawn a rather surprising amount of confusion and even ire from the community about why I'm so keen on fixing what is such a minor problem. Setting aside the argument that it's ostensibly a bug and a fix requires no further justification than that fact alone, it's worth examining why, exactly I want so badly to fix it. After all, it's not exactly something that affects game balance in any appreciable way and it's rarely even used much beyond Mt. Koltz anyway since antidotes and eyedrops are extremely cheap. Where this bug does its real damage is in undermining the message that I'm trying to convey at what we have established as a crucial learning point in the game. When the player uses a "trick" from the original game - which is clearly an exploit if we for some reason can't agree is also an outright bug - this reinforces the idea in the player's mind that only the game's most egregious flaws have been addressed while the minor ones have not.
Now, I speak pretty consistently of the original game as deeply flawed because, well, it is. But a recent conversation with my friend Muppets In Space (who you should also follow because he's an amazing and extremely interesting individual) shed some perspective onto this view that I was previously lacking. He stated that for all of the original game's problems, it's still something that a new player can experience and enjoy, often without even noticing most of those problems. This was was an argument that I'd often heard before and generally dismissed since, after spending nine years under the hood of this God-forsaken mess, I was generally blind to the notion that it was even possible to not notice how sucking fucking broken this damn game is. But the truth of the matter is... he was right.
There are some very good reasons that I should probably describe to a therapist one day why I remember so little of my childhood, but I did my best at this moment to think back to when I was a young BTB and recall my initial playthough of Final Fantasy
III VI way back in 1994. And there was one moment that really stood out to me more than anything else: obtaining espers for the first time. The big prize of the initial four is without a doubt Ramuh, as it provides the most powerful directly-offensive spell available at the time. But I remember being instead drawn to Siren (make your own joke here), which provided the first status debuffs. I distinctly remember thinking that they might provide an interesting expansion for what was thus far a very basic combat system and allow for more strategic approaches (spoiler: they didn't). It was at this point that I realized that what got me into modding in the first place was something that basically every Final Fantasy fan does: I see games as I want them to be, not as they actually are.
In this case - and in most others - what I wanted was a game where the level design complemented the player's abilities rather than the presence of those abilities being a mere formality that the genre expects but never actually utilizes. Going back to an earlier example, although players never actually used Edgar's Noiseblaster in the original game, it's worth noticing that they always had it. And this wasn't something that you gained naturally over the course of the game or found somewhere in a chest, you actually had to buy it. And that's very important, because it tells me that, deep down, the player ultimately wants the same thing that I do. But even if that's exactly what I give you, it means nothing in the end unless I'm able to effectively communicate it to you through that same design.
Until next time, my friends...
November 05, 2019 - The Game Design Litmus Test
I've written at length at this point on multiple aspects of game design, covering a wide range of "do's" and "don'ts" of a vastly complex subject. Today, as indicated by the title of the article, I'd like to take a step back and propose a basic rule of thumb which can give you a basic idea about how well a game is designed without analyzing it too deeply (or, at least without analyzing it from any other angles). This guideline is as follows:
"How much opportunity and incentive does this game provide to the player to use all of the tools available to them?"
The over-simplified version of this question is, "how many of the options given to the player completely suck?" such as a fighting game with a character that nobody would use unless they wanted to intentionally handicap themselves. This test expands that question by asking why that character sucks - are their abilities simply bad, or are they just bad within the context of a game environment that wasn't designed with their abilities in mind? Sometimes an item or an ability in a game is actually helpful, or at least it would have been had it been given to you sooner. And other times you have things that are clearly designed to feed that monkey drive in your brain just by existing, but are clearly useless upon closer inspection.
We will apply this test to five popular game franchises and see how they hold up. Bear in mind that this is not meant to be a comprehensive analysis of how well-designed they are on the whole, but rather how well they perform when judged according to this one specific guideline. Also note that the term "tools" should be defined very broadly here to include basically any action the player can take: an attack they can use, an item they can collect, or even an environment that they can explore. Many people go through life embracing the question of, "why shouldn't I do this thing?" but today we'll be taking points away each time a game fails to come up with a good response to, "why should I?"
So, without further ado...
Super Mario Bros.
Arguably the most basic of all platforming franchises, Super Mario Bros. should provide us with a decent baseline of expectations for this experiment. By its very nature as a pioneer of its industry, it will also provide us with examples of evolutionary leftovers from the era that bore it. Super Mario Bros. arose from the height of the arcade age and, in some ways, never really left it behind. Case in point, the supremely superfluous scoring system serves absolutely no purpose whatsoever and sticks out like a third nipple upon even mild scrutiny. That said, there is nothing in any Mario game which exists solely to boost your score (the same, interestingly enough, cannot be said for more "advanced" games like Ninja Gaiden and Castlevania), and so this entire mechanic can be safely ignored.
The other vestigial mechanic of the series is its "lives" system, which at least upon its initial release was still quite functional. The original Super Mario Bros. demanded to be completed with either a minimal amount of fucking up or an excessive amount of grinding 1-ups from the only spot in the game where doing so was actually possible. Extra lives were otherwise very scarce, and collecting coins to earn more of them was, at least for the time being, actually rewarding. Throw in the fact that mushrooms, stars, and fire flowers (oh my) were vital upgrades because, again, arcade games were designed primarily to murder you and eat your quarters, and the first game in this long-running series is pretty coherent as far as our test is concerned. We shouldn't give it too much credit, however; given how basic it is, it would be like congratulating a caveman for discovering how to club his neighbor over the head.
The second game, or at least the one we got here in 'Murrica, was a complete departure from the rest of the series as many sequels of the time were (bear in mind that Super Mario Bros. itself was a sequel to a vastly different game). Most notably, it introduced an incredibly cool character selection system that would be criminally neglected throughout the remainder of the series and significant exploration elements in its stage design. With the latter, however, we began to see the cracks form in the foundation of the series that would later grow into massive fault lines. Thoroughly exploring the game's "subcon" areas was critical to your survival as it contained both coins, which could be used to earn extra lives, and mushrooms, which would increase your more immediate survivability. The only problem was that each mushroom was applicable only to the stage in which it was found, severely diminishing the incentive to hunt them down in many of the shorter/easier stages - again, not the hugest of deals, but a portent of things to come.
Super Mario Bros. 3 saw a return to the basics of the series running directly contrary to an attempt to be more progressive. The reappearance of the scoring system was an overt nostalgic throwback even by the standards of its time, but far more noticeable was the increasingly ripe corpse of the lives system dressed up in its Sunday best and being paraded around like it was Weekend at Bernie's. A game over would now send you back only to the beginning of a world rather than the entire game, not that you'd ever see it given that the game crammed more green mushrooms down your throat than a Dr. Seuss antagonist. Once precious extra lives were reduced from glistening oases in the middle of the desert to, "...if I hear that Goddamn Wonderwall song one more fucking time, I'ma strangle a bitch."
Superficial aspects aside, however, Super Mario Bros. 3 fares about as well as you'd expect it to. The various power-ups were the real meat of this game and every one (except that damn frog suit) was a welcome sight whenever you happened across them. In fact, given their transient nature and the extreme rarity of the most desirable amongst them, they became a little too desirable and more often than not ended up being hoarded in players' inventories rather than actually being used. This issue was exacerbated by the fact that they existed in set quantities rather than variable depending on player action. The developers missed a critical opportunity at this juncture to take the franchise's iconic coins, which continued to litter every stage and made half the game feel like a dive into Uncle Scrooge's vault, and attach them to Mario's inventory rather than to the rotting carcass of his seemingly-infinite supply of lives.
(Please note: SMB3 will be docked several points for the inclusion of the totally fucking sweet shoe in only a single stage where it ends up being more cool than actually useful.)
Not much changed for awhile beyond this point in the series. Mario continued to cling to outdated mechanics long past their expiration date, culminating in a hilariously gratuitous appearance by Yoshi in Super Mario 64 to reward your efforts in finding every star in the game with a load of useless green shit, but they remained a relatively harmless and largely insignificant presence until their eventual abolishment. The important aspect is the incentive to explore the game's stages rather than running straight to the end, which is what these superfluous elements ostensibly existed to facilitate. When probing the depths of every stage stopped being necessary for the sake of survival, the series floundered a bit until it fully embraced the collect-a-thon genre. This issue was perhaps most prominent in SMB3, which presented the player with an amazing world full of secrets and almost no reason whatsoever to look for any of them. Curiously, the GBA remakes of both Super Mario Bros. 2 and Super Mario World addressed this concern with the addition of the "dragon coin" system (present in the original version of the latter, but there was no incentive at the time to hunt them down), but Mario 3 was for whatever reason ported over lacking the one change that would have made a classic game even better. And that's terrible.
The Legend of Zelda
Looking at just the first game in the series, Zelda scores remarkably well on this test. Every item in the Goddamn toolshed that Link has stuffed inside his tunic has a legitimate and viable use, although a few of them do see an unfortunately small window of application. It would be nice to stumble across the Red Candle a bit earlier than the seventh dungeon, and you may as well not even bother getting the wooden boomerang in the first dungeon since you'll acquire its upgrade almost immediately thereafter in the second. But these are ultimately minor nitpicks in an otherwise solid game.
Moving on to the second title, we see similarly high marks. Items here served almost exclusively as keys to new areas, leaving spells as the "functional" upgrades. And again, there are some nitpicks - Fire could have been more universally effective and Reflect could have worked on more types of projectiles - but ultimately every piece of Link's repertoire feels like it belongs there and has something to add to the mix. Moreover, the experience system provided incentive clear up until the end of the game to use those abilities to murder everything you came across.
The 16-bit jump to A Link To The Past is where we start to see extraneous elements creep into the game's design. Link's inventory is larger now than ever before, and at least some of this shit should probably have been cut from the final product: the Magic Cape was just a redundant version of the Cane of Byrna, red and green potions had no reason to exist alongside the clearly-superior blue ones, and not one but three different spell medallions that each killed every enemy on-screen was just a wee bit excessive. Now, the potions might not have been an issue if it weren't the biggest design misstep in this installment: completely ruining the economy. Collecting rupees became excessively trivial in this game, rendering it invalid as a balance mechanic (i.e. purchasing cheaper red or green potions instead of the more expensive blue ones) and reducing any attempt to reward the player with financial gain to "thanks, I hate it."
Hyrule's busted economy would persist through its next several games and would remain arguably the biggest flaw of the series for quite some time. While Link's Awakening and Ocarina of Time both had a few items that mostly sat in your inventory and took up space, by far the absolute most useless thing in both games was the mountain of rupees burning a hole in your pocket because you had nothing to spend it on. The creators even seem to be aware of this issue between the snarky messages from rupee chests in Link's Awakening and the crowning insult of rewarding the player for finding every gold skulltula in Ocarina of Time with an infinite supply of money which was, by that point in the game, literally useless.
The closest that the series ever got to putting its economy back on track was the Oracle games, by which I mean that there was actually a decent amount of stuff to buy and rupees weren't being handed out to players like free candy from the back of Jared Fogle's van. The Oracle games are also a welcome return to form with regard to their deliberately purposeful inventory and are especially notable for featuring upgrades to several items that seem to arrive just around the time that you're starting to wonder why you're even carrying the damn things around. Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages both very clearly had their fingers on the pulse of what makes the series tick and combined the best elements of all of the games which preceded them while simultaneously learning from their mistakes. It's because of this that I choose them both to represent the Zelda franchise as a whole to render my final verdict.
Score: Great (but Adam Smith would like a word)
The Mega Man fanbase is firmly divided between two types of players: those that insist on playing through as much of the game as possible using just the regular gun and those that have fun looking for opportunities to use the other weapons. While this article is written from the perspective of the latter camp, the existence of the former tells us a great deal about the design of the series and the unique challenges it faces as a result. More specifically, we must view the ability to play through the game's stages in any order - a staple of the Mega Man franchise - as one of the tools available to the player.
Bearing this in mind, its design flaws become readily apparent. The stages are designed to be played in any order and this is reflected in their difficulty; each one is potentially the first one to be tackled and thus must be winnable without the benefit of any weapons other than your basic pea-shooter. This has the negative impact of providing little incentive to the player to experiment with their new weapons aside from the novelty value. Contrast to the Ninja Gaiden or Castlevania games, wherein subweapon use was greatly beneficial in preserving your health and, ultimately, surviving. A key factor in this discrepancy is the noticeable generosity that the Mega Man series has with health refills: were Mega Man's health pellets (which is to say nothing of E-Tanks) as uncommon as Ninja Gaiden's potions or Castlevania's wall chicken, there would be a far greater incentive to use all of the tools at your disposal in order to mitigate damage intake.
Looking to the primary use of Mega Man's secondary weapons, we see a game that largely seeks to invalidate its own structure. Exploiting the weaknesses of robot masters to the weapons obtained from the others effectively trivializes every boss fight beyond the first in a typical Mega Man title, which in turn reduces the ability to play through the game's stages in any order to a simple decision as to which one to play first, with the rest of the order being dictated by the "weakness loop"(*). Mega Man 3 was the first - and only - title in the series to attempt to break away from this by having two loops joined together by a single robot master with multiple weaknesses, and this increasingly-stagnant series would stand to benefit from further exploration of this concept.
(*Yes, the game becomes more interesting if you play the stages in a wacky order and don't exploit boss weaknesses, but I've said before that self-control is a terrible thing to balance your game around. There's nothing wrong with encouraging self-imposed challenges in your game, but you must provide the player with a tangible metric by which to do so.)
A much more interesting take on the Mega Man formula would see each boss possessing minor weaknesses to several weapons as opposed to a debilitating weakness to a single one. This would change the flow of the battle drastically depending on which weapon was used due to the different behavior of each one and allow for a far greater variety of potential viable routes through the game. As for the stage design, some games in the series experimented with diverging paths within levels or optional exploratory elements that required certain weapons to proceed, but neither idea had the (apparent) intended result of promoting different routing choices since neither focused directly on strengthening that core concept. Instead, the design would have done better to focus on a dynamic difficulty curve with each stage posing greater hazards the later in the order it was attempted - and, thus, the more equipped you were to handle it.
Score: Poor (Great with a few tweaks)
Unsurprisingly, Metroid beats out pretty much any other game series out there when graded on this scale given that it's almost unfairly biased toward Metroid's core design concepts. Metroid games are specifically designed around the tools given to the player as a means of both progression and gameplay. This seamless integration makes every upgrade feel far more meaningful as a result with the only real downside being that the scavenger-hunt nature of the series makes finding your 50th missile pack feel a little like opening up a treasure chest full of soiled linens.
So, really, what more is there to say here that I didn't already say in the article I wrote about Super Metroid? Well, games in the series tend to be somewhat on the easy side when played through casually, only revealing their true sadistic colors to players who attempt challenge runs. A low% run, wherein the player attempts to complete the game with as few items as possible, tends to see some fairly ingenious use of the items which are collected. Alas, this shoves all of Samus's other items by the wayside along with the equally ingenious tricks that can be pulled off with them simply because there's just no reason in any potential run of the game for those tricks to be used unless you're just screwing around. In short, if I had to find a failing with Super Metroid based on the criteria at hand, it would be that it's not a more robust version of itself.
Enter the internet. Something that has become increasingly popular in the hacking scene are randomizers: programs which, well, randomize various aspects of a given game to generate virtually infinite replayability from a game that many players have beaten hundreds of times over by this point. They tend to be hit or miss, depending on the game in question. For example, Final Fantasy VI is an absolute mess of a game, and one of the more popular randomizers out there takes it and turns it into... well, an even bigger mess. There's no accounting for taste, I suppose. But something like Metroid, on the other hand? Samus is practically begging for it.
If you love Super Metroid (and who doesn't?), definitely consider giving the randomizer a spin the next time you've got a hankering to play. And if you also like Zelda, you're in for a real treat. Due to an incidental compatibility between the SRAM usage by the ROMs for both games, it turned out to be possible to combine them into a single game, randomizing items from each throughout both games. And yes, I'm aware that what was supposed to be an examination of the Metroid series devolved into me shilling a fan product, but it's something I wanted to get around to sooner or later and it's not like I had much else to say here. (Also, you should play AM2R. It's fucking amazing.)
Score: Excellent (guitar riff)
Obviously, we had to cover this one. I mentioned before when I touched on the concept of this test that the average JRPG would score miserably and if you've read everything I've written prior to this point you'll have a pretty good idea as to why. The issue certainly isn't the lack of options - if anything, you have way too many of them. Rather, there is simply no reason to not just pick the most powerful attack you have and spam it ad nauseam. Although by no means unique in this regard, Final Fantasy VI remains a notable offender due to the sheer excess of clearly superfluous options it provides.
As I discussed at length in my article on boss fight design in RPGs, the complexity of combat in most JRPGs rarely progresses beyond, "hit the bad guy until he dies, stopping to heal thyself as necessary." Other options are indeed universally present - buffs for your characters, status debuffs for your enemies, or weaker attacks that might prove more beneficial if used under the right circumstances - but rarely if ever did any of them prove to be useful. Debuffs in particular are a subject I've elaborated on in the past, and their ubiquitous shittiness can be summarized thusly: they don't work on anything you'd actually want to use them against. Thus, the opportunity to utilize these options exists only on enemies for which there is absolutely no incentive to do so.
Again, this is where Final Fantasy VI breaks away from the rest of the pack and stands out as a glorious example of what not to do seeing as several of its bosses are, in fact, vulnerable to status effects. Now, this might sound like a good idea at first - which it almost is - except that the majority of FF6's statuses will not merely weaken but will rather completely shut down whatever you use them on. There's a difference between an intelligent player effectively using the tools available to them in order to make a difficult challenge easier to overcome and a tool which destroys that challenge altogether.
This highlights a significant issue with such abilities in RPGs. Seeing as they are tactical affairs rather than action-based platformers, their skills generally do not require quick thinking or reflexes in order to use. Implemented poorly, they're simply an "automatic win" button that the player merely needs to remember exists and think to use. Ideally, their use would be contingent on at least some degree of forward setup and planning and/or would render the battle easier rather than free. However, that requires careful consideration and battles designed specifically around the concept, so it's very easy to see why most RPGs simply go the route of status debuffs only being effective against trash mobs.
So, coming back around to the original question: does Final Fantasy VI provide both opportunity and incentive to use abilities that, in any other JRPG, would have been completely ignored? Yes, it does, but the lack of careful design around this decision makes the result worse than if they hadn't tried at all. By allowing certain options to be so over-effective that there becomes little sense in trying any other option, you ultimately end back up at the same point where you started. Final Fantasy VI scores technical points on this front, thus proving that this litmus test is not without its flaws.
And there we have it: five popular game franchises judged by a single metric that hopefully provides some insight about how well their designs work. There are several other game series(...es?) that I'd like to visit in a potential follow-up to this article: Castlevania, Ninja Gaiden, and a different RPG series that might shine a better light on the genre than today's selection did. But for now, this article about a quick and easy way to tell how well a game is designed is already, ironically, one of the longest and hardest (giggity) that I've ever written. I'd like to thank the various communities that keep reading these articles and whose encouragement helps keep them coming. I honestly can't think of a better reward for my efforts than to have played a part in inspiring so many of you.
(Well, besides the groupie sex.)
August 08, 2019 - RPG Boss Design 101
With the 2.0 release of Brave New World just around the corner and one of its most prominent changes being a complete overhaul of enemy AI, I wanted to take a moment to talk specifically about how to design a good boss fight in an RPG. Now, anyone who's played Brave New World at all in the six years since its initial release can generally agree on at least one thing: Atma Weapon is the fight to watch out for. He's big, he's mean, he caps off the first half of the game in an epic fight with its own special music, and I set out to make sure that every bit of that distinction was earned. All of the other bosses in Brave New World have slowly evolved over time to get to where they are now, but Atma in particular has barely changed at all for fear of fucking with the gold standard that I was holding everything else I was designing to. And that's particularly interesting since, when I wrote it, I really didn't know what the hell I was doing.
There are many ways to go about making your boss difficult, most of which fall under the definition of "fake difficulty" and should be avoided. More important than if something is hard is why it's hard - I'm not going to complain if you have an erection, but I will be concerned if you got it from stabbing children. Giving your boss more hit points (beyond a certain threshold) does nothing except needlessly prolong the fight and, while random elements are necessary, relying too heavily on them will turn your fight into a luck-based mission. There are several reasons that Atma works despite the fact that his AI is not particularly complex or interesting by my current standards: most importantly, he uses a wide variety of attacks that are both directly and indirectly offensive, and his stats are fine-tuned to my personally-suggested guideline of, "make the fight just hard enough that you, the developer can beat it, but only barely, and then dial it back a notch". But even this is just scratching the surface of what really makes the fight tick.
At their core, battles in RPGs are nothing more than a balancing act of priorities. At their most simplistic, those priorities are defense and offense. Will my character be able to survive another hit? If not, then heal, else attack. A third priority often comes into play in the form of a limited resource, most commonly MP for magical abilities, that might force you to think one more turn ahead. You can see right away that this isn't particularly deep, especially when that third priority isn't stressed hard enough either because MP costs are insignificant or consumable items are so abundant to the point of never being an issue (extra demerits if said items are just as good as or better than any character-specific abilities that they imitate). Sadly, many RPGs are comprised of battles which are barely if at all evolved beyond the point of "hit the bad guy until it dies" - unsurprisingly, such games tend to be regarded by their fans for their stories rather than for their gameplay. I've stated in the past that status effects are the "X-Factor" separating an interesting battle system from a pure numbers game, and this is where we dive head-first into that concept at work. By expanding the above list of priorities to include both positive and negative effects on the player character as well as the opponent, suddenly there's a lot more to juggle.
Indeed, Atma Weapon is a battle where negative statuses are applied liberally to the player while positive ones are periodically stripped by force. Atma himself gains status buffs halfway through the fight that the player can opt to remove. However, this is immediately followed up by a particularly devastating attack that will require action to recover from, thus effectively dividing the player's attention. Initially, these buffs were a one-time application which would simply reward any player who thought to remove them; the only significant change that Atma has seen in the last six years was my realization that a "set and forget" approach to this particular element meant that it didn't end up factoring into the player's list of priorities. In order for those buffs to be part of the great balancing act, they had to be a persistent factor throughout the fight, and thus a new core mechanic of the battle is preemptively dispelling those buffs at set intervals.
The final ingredient in what makes the battle with Atma Weapon particularly rough is his inherent ability to regenerate health. That it makes the battle more challenging is obvious, but it's again important to note why. Looking at the player's list of priorities, we see now quite a few things: offense, healing, resource management, buffs and debuffs... but this can all still be simplified to "get on your feet and then attack", meaning that the player can adopt a heavily defensive approach to greatly minimize the risk of defeat. With the enemy afforded the capability to heal, however, offense can no longer be completely de-prioritized and becomes woven into the fight's balancing act in a way that it otherwise wouldn't. Other fights in Brave New World take different approaches to this problem, most notably Phunbaba's "rage timer" that earns the player a face full of Blow Fish if they go for too long without attacking, regardless of how powerful that attack is.
So, where does good boss design have to go from here? We must look past offense simply existing as a single priority and break it down into several of them, else offense is a simple matter of "hit the bad guy with the strongest attack you have" since there's generally no benefit in not using the strongest attack available. This is a concept that the original game attempted to explore with "wallchange" bosses which would periodically shift their elemental weaknesses at random while gaining immunity to every other element. Unfortunately, it didn't quite pan out as they'd hoped since players found it preferable to simply ignore the gimmick by spamming non-elemental attacks. Even when Brave New World took this concept one step further by preventing non-elemental damage and thus forcing the mechanic on the MagiMaster boss, the result was more of a gear check than an interesting or challenging fight. So clearly, there was a flaw to this approach.
Enter Kaiser, king of the dragons and famous dummied-out boss from the original game who finally got his global debut as one of many questionable additions to the GBA re-re-release of Final Fantasy VI. He also appears in Brave New World as a third "wallchange" boss who somehow ended up even less interesting than the two who preceded him. Of all the boss fights to get a complete rewrite in 2.0, none were as significant or as needed as Kaiser's, which basically takes the "wallchange" gimmick and makes it proactive instead of reactive. The elemental premise still exists here, but rather than waiting in boredom for a weakness to present itself the player must instead actively cycle through their available attacks in order to prevent Kaiser from unleashing its real ultimate power. It's an extremely hectic fight that, moreso than any other in Brave New World, tests the player's ability to balance multiple priorities if they are to have any hope of pulling through.
And for the closest thing that Brave New World has to an optional superboss, I would accept no less.
June 09, 2019 - Silence Is Golden
Today, I need to bitch about one of the most awful yet ubiquitous design flaws in video games, which is the inexplicable need to accompany repetitive sound effects - generally voice clips in anything even remotely modern - with player actions that will be performed approximately several thousand times over the course of an hour's worth of gameplay. Bonus "fuck you" points for effects that aren't cute/funny the first time you hear them, let alone the millionth.
What bothers me most about this is the apparent complete lack of understanding on the developers' parts about just how obnoxious this shit is. It seems exactly like the kind idea that some empty-headed fuckhead executive would come up with, or maybe even just a bored coder, but literally 30 seconds of actual gameplay testing should reveal to even the most stubborn of creators what a horrible abomination their efforts have wrought and that it clearly needs to be destroyed for the sake of all humanity. Yet, even after over twenty years of this practice becoming commonplace, not a single developer has seemingly ever been forced to endure their own creation or witness a single player scream, "OH MY GOD SHUT THE FUCK UP, WHY WON'T YOU SHUT YOUR FUCKING WHORE MOUTH YOU PIXELLATED PIECE OF DOG SHIT JUST SHUT THE FUCK UP I HATE YOU."
And again, this is not something I can peg on a single developer. This is something pretty much everyone started doing around the late 90's and ostensibly the only thing preventing them from doing it before that was the technical limitations of the 8 and 16-bit eras (which still managed to torture us with that incessant "low health" beep that gives me Guantanamo flashbacks every time I hear it). That said, there certainly are companies who are worse offenders than others.
Take, for example, one of my favorite games of all-time, Super Mario Bros. 2 (US). Extolling upon its many virtues is a topic for a different day, but one of its flaws was that it didn't do much to force a player to thoroughly explore through its levels once they already knew the best way through them. The GBA remake addressed that issue with the addition of collectibles in the form of Super Mario World's "dragon coin" system. What it also did was shit so badly on the entire game with the problem I mentioned above that the damn thing is fucking unplayable to anyone with working eardrums.
Charles Martinet, better known as the voice of Mario and the various genetic accidents that he's seemingly(?) related to, is a nice guy. I'll forever be in the "Captain" Lou Albano camp of what Mario should really sound like, but Charles has the notable advantage of still being alive. I've actually gotten to meet Charles and I think he does a good enough job and is a pleasant person. That said, through absolutely no fault of his own, pretty much everything Nintendo has ever done with his voice has made me want to strangle him.
I'm so sorry, Charles. You didn't deserve this. And neither did we.
March 10, 2019 - The Developer's Hand
At some point in every game developer's career, they are legally required to write an essay explaining why Super Metroid is the gold standard of game design, because when a game is so groundbreaking that it names an entire genre, it deserves to be examined. While my previous article took a look at Final Fantasy VI and pointed out a long list of game design "don'ts", this one is going to tackle the "do's". But instead of following same format as the FF6 article, I'm going to start out with a single point - the thesis of this piece, if you will - and then I'll spend the rest of my time coming back around to it.
"People like playing games, but they don't like being reminded that the game was designed by someone."
Now, that's going to sound kind of hypocritical coming from me given how much Brave New World leans on the fourth wall, but there's a huge difference between the initial impact of that statement and what I'm actually talking about here. Self-awareness in games is not a bad thing - the greatest thing about Hideo Kojima (or, for a more contemporary example, Toby Fox) is his unrivaled ability to remain one step ahead of the player, anticipate their actions, and react accordingly. Although my point does concern the narrative of your game as much as it does the mechanics, the intended takeaway is that it should always be the player initiating the action rather than the game itself.
Of course, a game does need to give the player some direction or else you end up either lost or, in the worst case scenario, with what Penny Arcade once referred to as a "quicksand box". The goal is to direct players without making them aware of the fact. Playing a game is a personal experience, and so players are naturally inclined to want to make the game their own. Being a part of someone else's vision places you in a box with restrictions and limitations, so it's of great importance that those limitations are kept hidden from the player at all costs. It's because of this that I prefer to avoid "artificial" boundaries wherever possible, such as an invisible wall at the edge of a map or a game that's designed for the player to hit a hard level cap instead of a "soft" one. Anything that highlights a limitation in what the game is or has to offer will pull a player out of the experience just as much (and arguably more) than a bad joke will, and the best-designed games are the ones that make you feel like no matter how much you've discovered, there's always something more just out of reach.
So, back to Metroid. The original game pioneered the ideas of open-world exploration, upgrades that open up new areas in addition to making you more powerful, and backtracking through old areas to access the new ones. It dropped the ball quite a bit due to the hardware limitations of the time - the entire game was a whopping 128 kilobytes - and the fact that it was the first of its kind. There were only a few upgrades that allowed further progression and so a lot of the world opened up very quickly, leading players to get lost more easily. This was compounded by the repetitive map design that, again, existed due to hardware limitations. Damningly, the game failed to telegraph its secrets well and made the fatal error of gating progression (which will be discussed just below) behind one such secret.
(Fun side note: did you know that the origin of Samus's iconic "morph ball" is that the developers of the original game couldn't be assed to come up with a "crawling" animation that wouldn't set the NES processor on fire? Goes to show you how good ideas can be born out of limitations, even if that limitation is laziness.)
See, there's a difference between figuring something out from a clue and being given no clues whatsoever and stumbling across the answer by, as Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw once put it, "...carting a truckload of miscellaneous knick knacks around, patiently rubbing them all one by one against everything else in the hope of hopping on to the train of logic unique to the game's designer." One gives a sense of accomplishment, and the other is literally brute-forcing your way through every possible option until you land on the right one. Super Metroid made an important compromise in this regard by adding a map system, which in the hands of lesser developers would ruin the core exploration aspect of the game but was instead used to great effect to hint at the game's secrets rather than laying them bare. Compare how the entrance to Kraid's Lair is discovered in Super Metroid by means of the in-game map system revealing its location, but not how to get there, to the original game requiring you to bomb nondescript tiles at random to find your way into lower Norfair.
One might be critical of Super Metroid's above-mentioned approach for making things a little too easy to figure out, but bear in mind that this occurs very early in the game in what can still be considered to be its "tutorial" segment. Later puzzles are more subtle, such as the broken glass tube in Maridia hinting at the player to blow up the other one in order to continue(*). The important thing to note is that the game never flat-out tells you where to go, but rather invites the player to explore the path leading forward through its level design. Where the original game stumbled with this by opening up too much of the game too soon, Super Metroid presents new players with a deceivingly linear path for its first act, only opening up the bulk of its world after it's taught you how to properly explore it.
(*The Mandela Effect shows up here seeing as a lot of people - myself included - recall the game pulling a Hideo Kojima on this one by showing off the solution in its "attract mode", which it doesn't. It does, however, act as a comprehensive tutorial of the game's basic and intermediate mechanics for a new player, which is pretty damn ingenous.)
Of specific note in the above paragraph is the term "new" players. In the beginning of its second act, Super Metroid teaches you two tricks - not by text, but by literal example - that can be used to break the game. And while there's nothing that kids enjoy more than breaking things, what's extremely important is that at no point were we actually told to do so. The game simply gives you a pair of neat tricks that the astute player will realize can be used to skip the game's "intended" sequence of events. And one of the most beautiful things about Super Metroid is the ambiguity about where the line lies between what its developers intended and what paths the players have since forged for themselves.
Now, contrast the next two games in the series. Fusion looked at how Super Metroid could be broken, scoffed, and then proceeded to railroad you so Goddamn hard that you had to cough up two hundred dollars every time you landed on it. Following massive fan backlash, the following game went to the opposite extreme but continued using the same flawed method of heavy-handed delivery. Rather than taking Super Metroid's subtle approach, Zero Mission beat you over the head with both directions and sequence breaking tools to the point of requiring them to get the best ending - which really begs consideration of whether it even qualifies as sequence breaking if the developers overtly intend for you to do it.
One thing that Zero Mission shoots for with this approach, however, and succeeds in accomplishing is highlighting the "easy to learn, difficult to master" gameplay for which the series is equally known, but rarely lauded. Super Metroid is very approachable to the casual player, but it is one of the most brutally unforgiving games ever when played for score. And that specific word is very important, because the idea of score as a measure of performance in games has been a joke since the early 90's. The modern era has seen "challenge" runs, often of the self-imposed variety, replacing the bragging rights of yore from holding the high score at your local arcade. Upon completing Super Metroid, it presents the player with a screen detailing the percentage of items collected and the time taken to finish, thus providing both the basis for and a means of tangibly rewarding what would otherwise be completely arbitrary challenges. More importantly, it does this without ever explicitly issuing a challenge, thus going back to my point about the difference between the game initiating action versus the player doing so. This is by far the biggest area in which Super Metroid suceeds where Zero Mission fails.
It's worth discussing the purpose of challenge in video games. Something that I've written about before is that many ROM hacks fall into the trap of making challenge their primary - and often only - notable feature. By contrast, Brave New World was developed to focus primarily on the fun of character development while its challenge is simply a means to an end: an obstacle that warrants that development to overcome. A good game is designed as a vehicle to present the player with opportunities to use the tools they're given, while a great game creates a seamless divide between the level of skill with those tools it demands in order to complete it and the level of skill that it inspires in order to master it.
A good (albeit not infallible) litmus test for how well-designed a game is in this particular aspect is to look at how many of its tools, skills, and/or abilities remain useful in its final stages. A proper climax should be a culmination of everything that you've learned in a game up to that point, testing all of your skills and knowledge in more complex and varying ways than before. A typical role-playing game will fail this test miserably: players spend the entire game collecting a plethora of skills and abilities only to spend its closing moments spamming nothing but the strongest ones. The idea of "situational" skills that are only useful when the circumstances allow are often overlooked by developers and players alike, leading to games (RPGs most egregiously) that marginalize them since the ones that aren't situational end up being all that you ever need.
The Metroid series as a whole avoids the above-mentioned issue entirely by designing the game around the core concept of Samus's abilities as a means of both combat and exploration. Going back to the "challenge" aspect mentioned above, it's entirely possible to complete Super Metroid with only a handful of its upgrades, but doing so requires great skill and mastery of the ones you do collect. And even on a casual level, the "fun" of any Metroid game is primarily derived from two sources: exploration and the player's movement. These two things go hand in hand; backtracking through previously-explored areas in order to progress is one of the chief defining characteristics of the Metroidvania genre, which in turn draws extra scrutiny to the means by which the game is traversed. Done poorly, this can be seen as padding meant to artificially increase the game's runtime. Done well, however, a combination of tight player controls and well-crafted level design can turn traversing old terrain with new abilities or from a different perspective into a completely fresh experience.
Another thing that Super Metroid is particularly well-known for is the laconic nature of its player character; aside from a brief introduction at the outset of the game to set the stage, Samus does not speak at all and the entirety of the game's plot is presented through subtext. Now, I'm of the opinion that stories in video games are like panties: they can be interesting, but I'm much more interested in what they're covering up. Super Metroid, for all of its sparsity, managed to present one of gaming history's most memorable plot twists completely inline with its gameplay. Eight years later, Metroid Fusion showed us why Samus should never be allowed to speak. Fast-forward another eight years and Other M showed us that nobody on Nintendo's current writing staff should be allowed to eat with a fork.
In summary, Super Metroid highlights something I believe to be not only a good game design principle, but a valuable life lesson, as well: show, don't tell. People will rise to far greater heights if simply given the tools and encouragement to do so rather than being explicitly shown the way. It was true in 1994, and it's still very true now 25 years later. Case in point, this article that been floating around in my head for awhile now, and it was playing a certain modern game that manages to encapsulate and build upon so much of what made Super Metroid great that inspired me to get off my ass and write it. And what more could an artist possibly hope for if not for their work to inspire others?
(Oh, yeah... groupie sex. Definitely the groupie sex.)
January 28, 2019 - The Book Of Job
Today, I want to talk about jobs: those things that most of us have and many of us resent because we'd rather be doing literally anything else besides wasting our lives away instead of living it. Those of us with jobs that we not only enjoy, but are able to afford us some modicum of fulfillment (which includes me, just for the record) should consider ourselves lucky. As we're all well aware, many of us - we'll call them "government workers" - aren't even lucky enough to have jobs at all. But while having a purpose in life is important, we often stray from that purpose in the pursuit of making ends meet.
Since the dawn of time, mankind has worked to develop technology to let us produce more resources with less effort. Running directly contrary to this, however, is our adherence to the romanticized ideal that you can't eat if you don't work. For example, imagine a farm with ten guys working on it. And then imagine that somebody else comes along and invents, I don't know, the plow, and now suddenly one man can do the work of ten. Logically speaking, this should mean that there'll be more food for everyone because we can produce more. Economically speaking, it means that nine people (or 5.4 people if you live in the south) are now out of a job and are thus no longer deserving of the social contract.
I once asked my father a question, and the answer he gave me was the shortest possible explanation of what's wrong with the world that I've ever heard. I asked him to tell me, in his own words, what the purpose of a company is. Now if you ask most people this question, they'll say that a company exists to provide a product and/or a service. My father's response, of course, was, "to make money." From a purely idealistic standpoint, it highlights the difference between wanting to make the world a better place and wanting to make your own world a better place. But from a purely logical standpoint... we've forgotten something really important here.
The purpose of an economy is to sustain ourselves, not the other way around. Money is not a resource. It's not healthcare or housing or food or porno mags or lug nuts or anything with actual inherent value. Money is just a way to ensure that the guy who makes the porno mags and the guy who makes the lug nuts are able to get everything that they need from the other guys so that nobody feels cheated. And the problem is that we're far more interested in supporting the broken system than the people that system was created to support in the first place. Money is not an end goal - it's simply a means to an end. And in the above example, money is what allows a company to continue producing a product and/or service, not the reason it produces that product and/or service in the first place.
And so we focus on the inherent goodness of having work to do, even at the expense of shunning newer technology that will do that work for us. The idea of job creation is one of the rare few things that transcends the partisan divide and is seen by literally every politician (and non-politician) ever as a good thing, which is kinda hilarious in a sad way because it's really not. Think about your own job for just a minute. Now think about that guy - every job has one - that makes more work for everyone. Is this guy a hero? Fuck no, he's an asshole and nobody likes him because he makes your job harder than it needs to be by giving you more work to do when you'd otherwise not be doing any.
And that's the point. Work isn't something that needs to be created where no need for it exists. It's something that we should should seek to minimize. Our goals should be to spend less time doing what makes our lives possible and more time doing what makes our lives worth living, be it dedicating more time to our communities, our families, or to the arts. There's a reason that we don't spend our entire lives hunting and gathering like cavemen just so we have enough food to survive - it's because this isn't 4,000 B.C. anymore and we don't fucking have to.
So think of a world without jobs. Like, really, seriously think of it. It's a world where nobody is hungry or homeless because the production of both food and shelter are jobs. Now think back to the world we live in, where one of only two possible things are true: there's either not enough food and homes being produced for the people who need them or there are and we just haven't figured out how to get them to the people who need them - and figuring out the answer to that question is a job unto itself. But regardless of what the answer is, one thing is clearly obvious: a world without jobs isn't something that we should fear, it's a utopia that we should continually strive toward.
Don't agree? Let's try this. Let's say you're broke and starving and you have no job, not because you're a lazy bum but because the jobs just aren't hiring. So some rich asshole comes along like, say, Donald Trump and he says he'll give you a thousand dollars right now to suck his dick. Now what he's just done is - by society's definition - created a job (even though he's the one who'll be getting the job). And you should be happy about that. You should be grateful for the opportunity to stick that tiny orange pecker in your mouth and suck on it like it's fucking candy. And if you don't take this valuable job opportunity, then you're nothing more than a greasy freebooter .
Yes, it's a job, but it's not really productive, now is it? It's just one asshole who's been given far more control over the distribution of resources than any one person should have, which he is now lording over you to get what he wants. And your performance of this pointless busy work doesn't actually bring anything good into the world and has no effect on the production of, say, the crate of vodka you'll go out and buy afterwards to wash away the shame and the Chee-toh Dust. It's just a way for you to get some green slips of paper that tell the world you're somebody worth helping out.
And this is exactly how we treat our jobs. We loudly complain about the brown sombrero people from the south coming into our country and doing our work for us, and not just any work - the most menial, exhausting, and thankless jobs that we have. And when your life has reached the point of seeing some poor bastard cleaning shit out of a toilet and thinking to yourself, "that should be me down there", it's time to seriously re-evaluate the system that's led us here. It's not fair to the guy scrubbing up my skid marks and it's not fair to us.
We as a race are so quick to want to assign a value to people and the things that they do that we tend to lose sight of why what they're doing is important in the first place. I've worked my ass off on Brave New World (2.0 is almost here, folks!) for the last eight years even though it's something I can never legally profit from, but that doesn't mean that it's not a productive use of my time that hasn't brought happiness to the - holy shit - tens of thousands of people who've played it. Meanwhile, poor Juan Martinez from the above paragraph is getting paid in shiny nickels while an asshole like Donald Trump earns billions of dollars for... well, being an asshole.
So what can be done about this? Well, one of humanity's biggest weaknesses, as evidenced by our voter turnout, is our inability to see beyond ourselves as individuals to the power we wield as a collective whole. No one vote has ever swayed an election (except for those times that they totally did) and no one man is going to burn down the establishment (but he'll try, by God). But an entire generation of people who are getting really fucking tired of this shit have come together and voted for one woman who dares to ask the question, "holy shit, people, does the world really need rich assholes?"
And you know what? It's a start.
July 28, 2018 - On Games And Bad Design
In contrast to the uncharacteristically serious nature of the most recent posts I've made here, and in light of the upcoming version
1.10 2.0 of Brave New World, I figured now would be a better time than ever to finally write that follow-up article to the one I wrote about the nature of modding. This time, I'll be talking about game design as a whole, using inherent flaws in Final Fantasy VI that are addressed in Brave New World as key talking points. I'm going to state up-front that you don't spend seven years underneath the hood of anything without developing a resentment towards the people whose mess you're cleaning up, but I'm going to forgo my usual vitriol towards Squaresoft here in favor of remaining as objective as possible... and in the process hopefully imparting upon y'all at least something I've learned in the last seven years.
Intent is three-fifths of bad game design
We'll start on an easy point, but a very important one nonetheless. If you ask most anyone what makes Final Fantasy VI a bad game he or she will invariably respond by citing one or more of its three most infamous bugs: the Sketch glitch, the evasion bug, and/or the Vanish/Doom bug. Although all three of these are serious problems in definite need of repair, none of them are indicative of poor gameplay design (although a case could definitely be made for poor coding in the case of the Lovecraftian Sketch routine). They are nothing more than mere programming errors.
Let's make a comparison. On one hand, we have the above-mentioned evasion bug, which causes the physical evasion stat to do literally nothing due to an incorrect ASM pointer. On the other, we have the "stamina" stat, which does practically nothing due to being deliberately designed that way. One of these things is an honest mistake; the other is a bad idea.
If we examine the sizeable number of hacks available for FF6, we'll notice that those which fix the above-mentioned bugs are the most popular - and with good reason. But nearly none of them, Brave New World being the only example that I can name, address the fact that three of the four core stats in the game are virtually useless by design. And it's extremely easy for people, particularly those who view the game through nostalgia goggles, to fail to realize that repairing its bugs does not do anything to address its more fundamental underlying issues: the ones that are there on purpose.
Don't invalidate your own systems
Final Fantasy VI is, by both its narrative and mechanical design, a game where magic reigns supreme over all else. Of the above-mentioned core stats, the only one that functions to any worthwhile degree is magic power. Even Sabin, the game's resident "monk" archetype - a class known for being bare-fisted fighters with no magical powers to speak of - is ultimately reliant on his magic power rather than his strength due to his ultimate skill being a "magic" attack. And this isn't because the attack itself is actually magical in any way - it's flagged as such solely because the game's physical damage formula does not mechanically allow for a physical attack meaningfully more powerful than the ones that Sabin starts out with.
At their core, games are basically a series of interlocked mechanics designed with the intent of being fun to play with, or failing that at least mildly interesting. One of the biggest mistakes that a game can make - and one that this game is particularly guilty of - is allowing poor design choices to render one or more of these systems moot. In this case, the decision for physical combat to be useless in the face of magic negatively affects every other mechanic that ties into it, which is quite a few of them given that damage formulas are, understandably, a core component of the game.
Let's look at equipment for example. Armor isn't in a terrible place because defense actually does work in FF6, so there's at least a reason to want to put the stuff on (even if 90% of the time it's just a matter of picking the option that automatically equips whatever has the most defense). Some armor can also boost stats in addition to providing defense, but we really don't care unless they include one of the two "god" stats: magic power or magic evasion. So while we can definitely see the effect of useless stats in play here, it's really not as bad as it could be. Weapons, on the other hand, feel the burn hard.
As one might expect, when the only meaningful form of combat is tossing around fireballs and lightning bolts, it really doesn't matter what the hunk of metal in your hand looks like or how strong it is. Unless it's boosting that almighty magic stat, it might as well be a moist towelette for as much good as it's going to do you. Like other characters of his ilk, Sabin wears "claw" weapons meant to reinforce his role as "he who punches things". But his special "punch stuff" attacks - even the ones that actually do physical damage - don't actually consider what he's wearing on his fists at all.
For an even worse example, we look to Cyan: an unfortunately-named samurai and perhaps the most maligned character in the original game because, unlike Sabin, his special skill is all physical damage. Since his ability is sword-related, it does actually require that he be holding a sword in order to function, but as with Sabin these skills all have their own set powers and function the exact same regardless of whether that sword is a legendary Hattori Hanzo or just some cheap garbage he bought on the Home Shopping Network. Upon defeating one of the game's penultimate bosses, you are bestowed with the most powerful katana in the game. And while that sword may do a good enough job of feeding into that all-important reward/pleasure zone in the player's brain, it's functionally identical to the one Cyan had when you met him.
Never offer a choice between fun and convenience
On the subject of equipment, we come to what is possibly the biggest design misstep in all of Final Fantasy VI: the Sprint Shoes. These were an item that, when equipped, would increase your character's abysmal walking speed to acceptable levels. Players would acquire them about an hour into the game, after which they were happily equipped and never removed because that hour was one spent watching Terra walk as if she had two pot roasts strapped to her feet.
The important thing to note about the Sprint Shoes is that increasing walking speed conveyed no combat advantages whatsoever. It did not help you get more turns, dodge better, or even help you avoid battles altogether (that last one is an entirely different can of worms altogether). Its only function was to make the game less annoying for the player at the cost of occupying an equipment slot that would otherwise be used for something that did provide a combat bonus.
It's telling that this is the only design flaw that was ever addressed in the deluge of re-releases that Squaresoft has put out over the years. Every other version of Final Fantasy VI provides a "dash" button to allow faster movement without the need for extra equipment, but it curiously does so without actually removing the Sprint Shoes, whose effects will stack with the standard dash just in case you needed to break the sound barrier or something. It becomes quickly apparent through such decisions that Squaresoft is more fond of Band-Aid solutions to problems rather than actual solutions, such as resolving the aforementioned Vanish/Doom bug by making "boss" enemies immune to being made invisible rather than addressing the mechanical problem that causes instant death attacks to ignore immunity when used on invisible targets.
(Needless to say, BNW adds a dash button and removes Sprint Shoes. It fixes the Vanish/Doom thing properly, too.)
Just because something is long does not make it hard
To expand on the underlying problem with the Sprint Shoes, something that players and game developers alike have a difficult time understanding is that just because something takes forever to accomplish does not mean that doing so is a challenge of anything but one's patience. This is ultimately an issue with any game where your character grows stronger over time, as most any challenge can be overcome by "grinding" out more levels rather than re-evaluating your approach and adjusting your strategy; good game design favors the latter over the former.
That said, the answer to the "challenge vs. time investment" question lies within the consequence for failure. In a more traditional arcade-style game, for example, such as pinball, the punishment for failure is "game over" since the entire point of those games is to see how many points a player can get before they die. However, that model doesn't translate to a game that's actually meant to be completed, especially one like Final Fantasy VI that requires several sessions to do so (unless your name is Puwexil). The consequence of failure in FF6 - or any other game with a save feature, for that matter - is time, and the "challenge" comes from whatever you have to do to get back to where you failed.
The above point is one of the biggest reasons why unskippable cutscenes, particularly those that precede a challenging encounter, are so vehemently despised by the gaming community at large, as they are the most extreme example of failing to provide any challenge whatsoever in the process of returning to the point of failure. It is thus of paramount importance in a story-driven RPG like FF6 to not utilize save denial as a form of difficulty since it ultimately inconveniences the player rather than challenges them. This is why Brave New World adds several save points to the game and would have added more had event space (and other coding issues) allowed.
Compare this to an action-oriented game like "I Wanna Be The Guy", where the only difference between difficulty levels is that the harder ones offer fewer opportunities to save your progress, thus forcing you to go back and repeat more of the game should you happen to fail (which you will). The "save denial" model works here since the game is a perpetual test of skill. People who persist at the higher difficulty levels often see themselves becoming much better at the game as a result, since they are forced to practice more of the game for each failed attempt to progress.
Back to Final Fantasy, a common complaint that players have regarding Brave New World is that many bosses have a lot of health and take forever to kill. To an extent, this is warranted: bosses must be able to take enough punishment so that your own endurance is sufficiently tested and so that luck alone will not pull you through the fight. However, there is a very specific tipping point - that point being where the battle ceases to be dynamic and instead becomes repetitive - where real difficulty becomes "artificial" difficulty and an otherwise-fun boss devolves into a boring damage sponge.
The "damage sponge boss" issue is one where Brave New World admittedly struggles to hit the mark at times, and each new version strives to come closer than before. One major roadblock is a simple lack of space to make enemy AI as robust as it could be, and it's extremely important to note exactly what I mean by that. The key is variety, not just in how the enemy behaves, but in how the player should best respond to that behavior. An enemy with fifty different attacks is no more interesting than the one who only has five if the answer to all of them is just "hit it until it dies".
A good example of this is Guardian, a late-game boss that possesses the most health of any boss in Brave New World. However, it is rarely cited as an example of the aforementioned issue since Guardian is a "boss rush" fight that goes through several drastically different phases throughout the battle as it mimics the attack patterns of other bosses in the game. Contrast to a boss that either doesn't change at all or simply gets more powerful as you whittle down its health, which at its worst is a very common but far less-recognized variant of the above-mentioned unskippable cutscene.
You want to design more than a numbers game
I've got a guy, God love him, who has been one of Brave New World's biggest and most vocal supporters from its earliest days. And this guy, he loves his math. Like, a lot. Whenever I get to work on a new update (and often when I'm not), he is always there to throw numbers at me and to point out exactly which attacks on which characters can produce the highest ratio of damage over time. He even wrote out a formula to help him calculate these numbers on the fly. But with each passing version of the mod, there is more added to it that his "magic" formula simply can't account for.
And that's the point. You know what's fun? Games. You know what's not? Math. Regardless of whether or not you agree with that, a key point of good game design is doing your best to make one that can't be solved by a magic formula.
Once upon a time, I watched a man play through Brave New World. And this man was known for, among other things, his tendency to power-level his way through games (the above-mentioned "grinding" issue) well beyond the point of them providing any reasonable challenge whatsoever. And as I watched him play through the end of the game with a team of over-developed characters all pimped out with equipment that prevented enemies from afflicting them with status ailments, I thought to myself, "...this is quite possibly the most boring thing I've ever witnessed."
Status ailments are a staple of turn-based RPGs and the primary "X-factor" that can't be accounted for when looking at raw numbers alone. Anyone who's ever played Pokemon might recognize things like blindness, paralysis, and confusion as one of the biggest mechanics separating an interesting game from "hit the other guy until either he dies or he kills you". However, Pokemon is a rare example of a game where, primarily due to its one-on-one combat system, status effects were implemented and handled well. More commonly in games that possess them, they are either ridiculously overpowered to the point of being exploitative, or useless on the whole since they won't work against anything you'd want to use them against and they (usually) don't work on you since the game hands out ways to defend yourself against them like candy.
It's thus a very harrowing tightrope that status effects must walk in order to be a relevant part of game design without completely running away with it. One half of the equation is a simple answer: enemies should make frequent use of them against your characters and there should be no (or very limited) catch-all methods of completely avoiding them. The other half is a bit more tricky. In order for status effects to truly have a place in a player's arsenal, three things must be true:
One, there must exist enemies which are threatening enough that the player would want to disable them to make fighting them easier (or even possible).
Two, those enemies must also be durable enough that you can't simply dispatch them through direct offense in the same amount of time. Similarly, disabling them should not consume more resources than direct offense would.
Three, and perhaps most obviously, disabling your opponent should have a reasonable chance of success. This means that enough enemies must be vulnerable to status effects that players will consider using them.
With respect to that third point, it's important to consider exactly how disabling a given status effect is. In Final Fantasy VI, the majority of them are completely debilitating while the rest don't actually do anything due to either bugs or poor design. FF6 commits a particularly egregious sin by making many of its bosses vulnerable to the former type, thus making it an inexplicable example of both wrong ways to handle status effects. Rather, the statuses that stop your enemies dead in their tracks should only work on some regular enemies (about half is a good rule of thumb) and only in boss battles when there are several of them - and even then not on them all. By contrast, the weaker statuses should be resisted uncommonly or not at all, and ideally should be worked into boss battles where possible to make them more interesting.
Bad design giveth, and good design taketh away
One of the less fun aspects of being a modder of poorly-designed games is that it often feels like taking a flamethrower away from a child after a lazy developer handed it to them and told them to go nuts. Remember that quip I made earlier about how Sprint Shoes don't actually help you avoid battles? Well, there just so happens to exist a well-known piece of "hidden" equipment in the game that does exactly that: the Moogle Charm. In what I consider to be a flat-out admission by Squaresoft that FF6's battle system was not entertaining, they put in a way to negate it entirely. And you'd be amazed (or maybe you wouldn't) at how many players are upset to see it gone in Brave New World.
I promised myself that I wasn't going to rip off Mark Rosewater's Twenty Years, Twenty Lessons speech in this article, but at this point I need to bring it up. In his speech (which I highly recommend watching), Mark talks about the emotional impact that games have on players, and it's through that impact that they become fans. Players want to feel empowered, and nothing has the exact opposite effect on them more than taking away something that's ridiculously overpowered and shouldn't have been there in the first place. Some people will argue that if players didn't want to use it, they wouldn't, but I'll just cut right to the chase on this one and say that self-control is a terrible thing to balance your game around.
On a similar note, Mark also cites the process of film editing, stating "...no scene is worth a line and no movie is worth a scene. If it's not serving the film as a whole, it needs to go." And just as with films, the editing portion of game design is a very important one that is too often overlooked in favor of the "quantity over quality" mentality that Squaresoft is particularly guilty of. There are many things in Final Fantasy VI that are too overpowered for their own good and far more that do nothing at all, and players will complain about removing content if you take any of it out.
But you should. Everything in your game should have a purpose, or else it needs to go. "Less is more" is a philosophy that I live by, and as such it's almost always better to look at doing what you can with what you have than try to add more.
It's all about choices
The concept of "fun" in a game, or at least one that favors strategy over dexterity and/or stamina, can ultimately be boiled down to a single word: choice. Choice is what drives a game like Final Fantasy VI if it wants to be anything more than a 16-bit movie where you occasionally have to press "A" to progress. It's also where FF6 drops the ball the hardest, despite providing an illusion to the contrary.
Final Fantasy VI boasted the largest cast of characters of any JRPG of its time, each with their own unique stats and skills, and the possibilities to customize them through the game's esper system, not to mention its vast array of weapons and armor, seemed almost limitless. But the holes in this facade were already discussed at length earlier: stats do nothing, magic was the only thing worth focusing on, and the esper system allows every character to learn any spell that they want, thus rendering the large cast entirely homogeneous. For there to exist meaningful choice in a game, there must be a difference in what you are choosing from. "Diversity" isn't just a corporate buzzword: it's the spice that brings games like Final Fantasy to life. And by restricting access to which characters can use which espers, Brave New World provides actual choice to the player that didn't exist in the original game.
It may sound counter-intuitive, but restrictions on the choices that you make are what make them choices in the first place. If you were just offered a million dollars with absolutely no drawbacks whatsoever, then it's not exactly a choice, now is it? The same would be true if you were given the choice between one of a dozen different options, all of which were equally terrible or useless. Final Fantasy VI, again, manages to do both of these things. Now, I draw much of my inspiration from games such as the original Final Fantasy or the Might & Magic series, where you select a party of characters at the outset of the game and how it progresses varies wildly depending on that initial choice. And that constant, nagging thought of the "road not taken" is what lures a player back in to your game after they've finished it, and often times even before that.
"Replay value" is a term that gets thrown around a lot with regards to video games, and with good reason: you want to get the most out of that fifty bucks you dropped on them, after all. It's because of this that I for so long resisted the addition of a "respec" system in Brave New World, where players can wipe a character clean in the late-game and rebuild them with different espers. If a choice can be so easily undone, I reasoned, then the player would not feel their lasting impacts and the choice itself would therefore be meaningless. I eventually acquiesced on the condition that this process be made to cost resources - an apparent violation of my "time consumption is not difficulty" rule, but appropriate in this case since the investment of time would cause a player to rethink an attempt to rebuild their characters frivolously.
Partial information is a sin
What ultimately tipped my hand and convinced me to go along with the "respec" system was the notion that players were unlikely to replay a ROMhack like Brave New World as they would an ordinary game, and that new players would not know enough about the game as they progressed through it to make truly educated decisions about how to develop their characters. While I still don't entirely agree with this reasoning, it does segue well into my next point.
Players make choices based on the information they have, and lacking that information, will be forced to do so blindly. Failing to provide players with the resources they need to make intelligent decisions will reduce your game to "guess how many fingers I'm holding up", which is rarely anyone's idea of fun. It's a less-extreme example of a "leap of faith" in a more action-oriented game, wherein players are forced to progress literally by making jumps that they have no possible way of knowing whether or not they will survive.
In ye olden times, RPGs would frequently come packaged with "feelies" such as manuals, fold-out maps, and various charts of information that could not be easily provided in-game due to technical limitations. Brave New World includes such peripherals, but in addition also modifies the game's shopping interface to severely limit the amount of up-front information the player is given about items. "Why", you ask? Because the partial information that was provided in the original is far worse than providing none at all.
Prior to the hack devised for Brave New World's 1.10 release which allows players to review all of the relevant information about an item prior to purchase, we initially deliberately provided none at all. The key is that in providing players only with partial information, they are not aware of what they are not being told and will make uninformed decisions based on what little they do know. If a player is instead told nothing, then they know that there is information they don't know and will (generally) choose to seek it out.
Put me in, Coach!
Speaking of characters and decisions that aren't necessarily permanent, we come to an issue that has plagued almost every game, or at the very least every RPG, that has ever allowed you to change your active character(s) at will throughout them. "Benchwarmer Syndrome" as I like to call it is a problem that it often addressed in games, but almost never successfully. The dilemma is simple: "how do I encourage players to partake of every character available to them instead of favoring a selected few while ignoring the others?" Perhaps a better question is "should I?"
Now, in a game like Super Mario Bros. 2, where your characters don't become more powerful through continued use, this isn't a problem: you simply select a character for each stage whose unique talents best suit your approach. But in basically any RPG ever, the strong getting stronger and the weak getting weaker is a severe problem. Final Fantasy VI is a notable example due to its exceptionally large cast: twelve characters (plus two hidden ones, bringing us to a total of fourteen) with only four of them being controllable at any given time. Squaresoft's answer in the case of FF6 was to provide "leaked" experience to all inactive characters so that everyone grows more powerful regardless of whether or not they are actively used combined with a final stage that forces you to utilize all twelve of them concurrently. It's not a bad solution, all said and done, but it is a double-edged sword with its own drawbacks worth considering.
The inherent issue with leaked experience is that it equally encourages NOT using your benched characters since they will grow with or without your help and players tend not to change out their characters unless they're forced to. Other games have tried more innovative approaches, such as the "wagon" in Dragon Warrior IV allowing your sideliners to replace active team at a moment's notice (a great idea in theory, but under-developed in practice) or Breath of Fire III's "master" system encouraging the use of your "B" team with masters whose primary benefits (stat gains) did not mesh with your favorite characters but whose secondary benefits (new skills) could ultimately benefit them. Notably, BoF3's cast was also half the size of FF6's with a much more favorable ratio (2:1) of total characters to those allowed in your current team.
Ultimately, we chose to forgo leaked experience with Brave New World both to encourage the varied use of a cast that is now actually as diverse as it claimed to be in the original game, as well as the fact that the way it utilizes espers to further develop characters has to be done the old-fashioned way. However, that's not to say that our answer is the right one. Unlike every other topic I've brought up thus far, I'm not offering a solution to this one: just thinking points. How a game chooses to handle this problem ultimately rests on the answers to many other questions, all of which this article has gone on far too long to get into now.
Above all else, have fun
At last, we get to the absolute most important aspect of game design there is: make the game that you want to play and have fun while you're doing it. My favorite piece of advice to give anyone in their creative endeavors is to stay true to your own vision, and others will follow. If you make your game trying to please anyone other than yourself, then it will fail.
To that end, it's readily apparent to anyone who plays Brave New World that it's a hack created first and foremost to amuse its creators. While we receive
occasional frequent criticism for some of the jokes and referential humor it contains, what is never contested is how funny I thought a joke was when I wrote it. People can tell the difference between someone who is making a joke because they're trying to be funny and someone who makes a joke because they are genuinely amused by it. Understand the truth in that, and you will understand the key to winning peoples' hearts.
In the end, making a game is just like being a rock star: if you're not having fun, you're doing it wrong.
(And also, if you're really good at it, you get groupie sex.)
May 27, 2018 - A Fistful Of Tits
The last article I wrote was unintentionally something of a sequel to the one preceeding it. Although they were on different subjects - drug abuse and gun violence - I tied them together by laying the blame of both at the feet of our country's laughably outdated views on education. After reading an article wherein at least someone agreed with me, I figured that I should come back and complete the trilogy since I've only mentioned in passing thus far a system that has some serious fucking issues for fear of draging myself way off topic. Strap yourselves in, kiddos - this one's gonna get rough.
I'm going to start by telling y'all a little story that's important here because it had a pretty big part in shaping how I look at what passes for education in this country. The year was 1998 and I had just entered high school. My grandmother was summoned to come pick me up early one day because I had been "involved in a fight" and zero tolerance means that when one kid beats up another kid, you treat them both as if they're equally in the wrong regardless of the circumstances. Now, it may surprise the cymbal-crashing monkey who comes up with these policies to learn that, in the real world, when you hit people for no reason and get taken to court over it, the judge is really interested in figuring out "who started it". It's kind of the difference between an assault charge not being a fucking retard who was inexplicably put in charge of a school.
And while this is the event that I can point to as a shining example of just what the fuck is wrong here - and I'll elaborate in a minute, I promise - it was what happened after my grandmother got there that shit all over this cake and called it "icing". Upon arriving at the school, my grandmother was met immediately by the school police officer who informed her that her grandson (i.e. me) was being "very disrespectful" toward him. Upon being asked how, exactly, I was disrespecting his authoritah, he responded thusly: "he's using a lot of big words that I don't understand".
Wow. Just fucking wow. Someone hand that guy a medal. And a donut - fucker was fat as hell.
Now, full disclosure, I have no particular recollection of anything I said to him that might have triggered this. The only exchange that I do remember was spelling out my name for him as he was writing it down on a citation and being met back with, "boy, I know how to spell your name". Spoiler: he spelled it wrong. In retrospect, I probably should have been fine with this - let Chanandler Bong take the heat for some kid kicking my ass.
Aside from just being really fucking stupid, policies like these are doing a lot more damage to our children than we realize by teaching them some very terrible shit about how our system works and ensuring that they grow up to continue feeding the tired old beast rather than Old Yellering the damn thing. In this particular case, the school administrator demonstrated zero interest in acting in his role as a person tasked with teaching children how to become responsible adults. You see, fights are the sort of thing that just tend to happen when you take 1,500 hormonal assholes and put them all in a building that they'd rather not be in, and they should be seen as the valuable learning opportunities that they are rather than a nuisance that happened to interrupt your morning wank. This, however, takes both effort and the courage to defy your idiot overlords by not following their retarded policies to the shit-smeared letter. Thus, it was instead made very clear to me that I would be dealt with by the police, thus teaching me that the best way to deal with your problems in life is to push them off onto someone else. After this, my principal stood up and washed his hands in a basin of water that he for some reason kept beside his desk - I found it a trifle unnecessary.
Now, the observant reader may have noticed the year in which my story took place and realized that it actually precedes the Columbine Shootings, which would not occur until the following April, and is largely blamed for kicking idiotic school policies like zero tolerance into high gear. So, while I very much had a front-row seat to the "let's treat every student as a potential criminal" shitshow that followed, it's important to note that two decades of school shootings didn't just create a bunch of really bad policy where there wasn't any already. All we've done since then is make it worse... so much worse.
More recently, a Kansas student was suspended for putting his school up for sale on Craigslist as a senior prank. And I'm not gonna lie, that shit's pretty fuckin' funny - and I normally don't laugh at this kind of juvenile shit unless someone is getting hit in the balls. And just like with my example above, the school's reaction sends the wrong message: it doesn't teach us to use our judgement or common sense when trying to figure out if something is a harmless prank or an act of terrorism, it teaches us to be paranoid retards lashing out at imaginary threats. You know, kind of like the NRA. You want MAGA, schools? 'cause that's how you get MAGA. One mintue you're suspending a kid for eating a Pop-Tart that looks like a gun and the next you're bitching about those damn brown people and getting your tax refund in "Trump Bucks".
This is probably the point where you might have a hard time imagining things getting somehow even stupider. And if you have a penis, then what we've gone over so far is likely the worst of it. If, on the other hand, you happen to be the owner of a vagina... oh boy (see what I did there?), do I feel sorry for you. Being a girl in high school is kind of like being the bass player in a band that isn't Iron Maiden: you can be there, but only as long as you don't distract anyone else from doing their actually important jobs. Your education will ultimately take a backseat to hiding the fact that you own a pair of tits because of the potential effect they might have on the boys around you, which is insulting to pretty much everybody. It's insulting to girls because of what I just said and it's insulting to boys because it teaches them that they have no self control and the rules are just there to set the precedent for a "she was asking for it" rape defense.
Think about it for a minute. We're talking about tits here, one of the most universally well-liked things ever, just below oxygen and Mr. Rogers. Everybody loves tits: men love tits, women love tits, and even babies love tits because they're, y'know, lunch. And then, every once in awhile, you get some piece of subhuman fucking shit that comes along and says that they need to be put away, possibly because he (and it is always a "he") was not birthed from a human mother, but rather just congealed in a gutter somewhere. And what do we do with these mouth-breathing mongoiloids? We put them in fucking charge of things, of course. Because we're fucking stupid.
I'm sorry, I seem to have gotten distracted. Tits have that effect on my male brain, you see, and since I can't be held accountable for my own actions then we must clearly blame the tits. And if you think that sounds like the stupidest thing you've ever read, that's pretty much what the Los Angeles Times said about the last shithead who took a gun to school and shot a bunch of people. And while I'm pretty sure that's not what the bloodsucker who thrives on the misery of others who wrote the article meant to say, his (yes, his - no way that headline wasn't written by a man) choice of words says as much about our country's views as the kid who shot the girl who wouldn't fuck him does. Remember, kids: sticks and stones may break your bones, but words perpetuate toxic societal attitudes that marginalize an entire gender. Pen: 1, Sword: 0.
Something else I only lightly touched on before is that the media does a lot to spur mass shootings by giving the attention-starved murderers exactly what they want: a chance for their voice to be heard. Some people choose to express themselves through music, or through art, or if you're me you just get drunk and say "fuck" a lot while complaining about shit that pisses you off. And some people, for whatever reason, fall through the cracks and figure that the best way to make a name for themselves is to go on a killing spree in a country where they'll plaster your face all over the news and talk about you for weeks or until the next mass shooting occurs (seriously, does anyone remember old what's-his-face who shot up that concert in Las Vegas?). It's gotten so bad that our nation's flag has spent more time flying half mast than Hugh Hefner's cock, and all anyone can do is have a massive circle jerk about gun control instead of looking at the place where we're all supposed to learn how to not grow up to be shitty people and figuring out why it keeps churning out shitty people.
If you take every problem I've mentioned thus far and put them all together into one big pile of shit, you'll find one common thread: an age requirement. Guns, alcohol, tobacco, marijuana (coming soon) - and even sticking your cock inside of that really hot girl sitting next to you in class - all have legal ages attached to them, like they're some sort of prize you get for living that long. And that's the message we end up sending to our kids: don't do this cool thing until you get older, and then you can totally do this cool thing. And then there's the ultimate grand prize for getting older: you don't have to go to school anymore (seriously, they'll eventually kick your SPED ass out no matter how dumb you are). From there you can either enter the workplace, where you will at least be compensated for dealing with rampant stupidity on a daily basis, or if you're rich and/or willing to take on crippling debt, join what's basically a cult.
In case I'm being too subtle here, nothing I have said above is representative of an education system that deigns to teach people what they need to know in order to lead better lives, nor one that commands any modicum of respect. And quite frankly, those two things should go hand in hand. A judge once told my mother - perhaps the only person I know with a mouth fouler than my own - that she would respect his position if not the person holding it, which to me is a massive crock of shit. Respect is something that is earned, not given, and I can think of no lesson more fundamental to impart on our youth. Because if you honestly, truly want to put an end to terrible things like gun violence, drug addiction, and Donald Trump, it's not enough to tell kids "don't do these uncool things". You have to lead by example and show them how to do the one thing our bureaucratic cesspool of a system wants to stop you - and them - from doing at all costs: think.
May 19, 2018 - D.A.R.E. To Be Stupid
As I was headed to the grocery store the other day to buy beer and beer accessories, I was met outside by a man collecting donations for D.A.R.E. For those of you who grew up during the Selfie Generation and have no clue what D.A.R.E. is, it was basically a failed attempt back in the nineties to keep kids from growing up into drug addicts. The man asked me how I was doing, and I responded that I seemed to have set my DeLorean for 1992 again. I eventually gave him some pocket change to make him stop talking - something I now regret and am now writing this to make myself feel better about.
You see, programs like D.A.R.E. all have a critical flaw in that they really, really suck at what they aim to do. They attempt to define scare tactics as drug education, much like how sexual education is just someone showing you pictures of all of the horrible things that will grow on your dick if you ever stick it inside of somebody else. Aside from being stupid and completely alienating anyone who can spot the flaw in their logic (children are remarkably more perceptive than adults wish to give them credit for), this approach is ultimately ineffective since it fails to address - or even grasp - what puts its target audience at risk in the first place.
Let's back up for a second. I shouldn't be the one to talk about at-risk teens because I never was one and wouldn't really even know what to say if I ever met one. I'm the other half of the audience in drug education classes: the kid that's bored out of his mind because he has to sit through a bunch of shit that will never be applicable to him and he kind of resents everyone else for their poor life choices that have made this program necessary at all. Kids like me saw D.A.R.E. in the same light as a two-hour PSA on why you shouldn't drink bleach: an affront to natural selection and an insult to our intelligence. In the end, I was completely vindicated in my decision to nope right the fuck out of drug education because, as we've already established, I wasn't the target audience anyway. But then, that's not really the point.
Yes, chemical dependency has never been a problem for me, and thus literally anything that any anti-drug campaign from my childhood attempted to teach me was a waste of both their time and mine. But I have spent the overwhelming majority of my life dealing with the kind of depression that drives many people to substance abuse in the first place, and that is the point. Basic life skills like how to cope with feeling like shit and healthy outlets for negative emotions don't really fall under our country's definition of "education", and our population is a very sad reflection of this. Combine this with our cultural obsession with firearms, and it's suddenly not that difficult to see why our days since last mass shooting-o-meter gets reset about once every other week.
It should be obvious by this point that the problem I speak of runs much deeper than drug awareness and is instead an issue with how we look at education as a whole. Our schools do nothing to teach children how to live better lives or be better people - they teach facts, dates, and ultimately useless trivia. At the risk of sounding like I should be kicking Keith David's ass in a back alley, we are taught to sit down, shut up, listen, and obey rather than the one thing that we should be taught above all else: to think. And that's probably because if anyone put any thought into half of the retarded-ass shit our schools did, we'd have a revolt on our hands.
So let's pull this back to the original subject of drug awareness, lest I bitch for hours on end about how fucking retarded "zero tolerance" rules have been and how utterly useless they are to boot. Put away the video of the pushy heroin dealer that literally no kid ever actually encountered in real life and approach the subject with a little bit of thought and complete honesty. Drug addiction ruins lives: that much is openly obvious to anyone with a functional brain or Google access and does not bear further repetition. However, it remains an issue in modern society despite its well-documented effects on your health and overall quality of life, and it will continue to remain so until we address the question of why.
Instead of showing children pictures of Florida Man and threatening them with turning out just like him if they ever so much as smoke a joint, ask them to imagine a scenario in which the desire to escape their problems becomes so severe that the threat of sucking dick for crack is no longer a deterrent. This not only brings up the topic of substance abuse without alienating half of your audience, but it also gets those tiny little brains thinking. And, if you subscribe to the notion that the children are our future, it gets us moving toward something that might actually be a solution.
March 21, 2018 - The World Of Tomorrow
So, today I want to take a minute to talk to the kids. The adults need to hear this, too, but much less so because, quite frankly, you people don't fucking listen. Anyway, it seems that many of you have come to a recent realization that you would very much enjoy not being shot. As someone who is also not particularly fond of being shot, I can certainly relate. Understandably, you want things to change, and I'm here today to impart some wisdom to y'all about what exactly any meaningful change would entail, as well as the obstacles it will face.
To make an example of a similar but unrelated issue, let's look at a friend of mine who happens to be a homosexual man. And because I'm a bigoted asshole (and not a very good friend, apparently), I decide I'm just going to go punch him in his gay face. Now, this is already illegal because it's, y'know, assault, but there are laws in place that make it extra illegal because what I'm doing is also a "hate" crime. And these laws protect my friend insomuch as they can send my ass to jail, but they don't necessarily address the underlying social prejudices that motivated the attack in the first place.
Point is, the government can't pass laws that change societal attitudes or make us less shitty people. There's been a number of images making the rounds talking about how gun laws work in, say, Japan, and not-so-subtly implying that we're all a bunch of ignorant fuckheads for not blindly following suit. But do you know why they work in Japan? It's because they don't have the collective cultural hardon for firearms that we do. There's nothing in their constitution - assuming they even have one - about their God-given right to arm themselves to the teeth (though I'm pretty sure there's something in there about Pocky). And that's probably because, unlike us, Japan wasn't founded by a bunch of people who were basically like, "hey, fuck you England. We're gonna go make our own country. With blackjack. And hookers. And guns. And we're gonna need those guns because the place we're headed to already has a bunch of brown and red people there and we need to murder the shit out of them to make room for our golf courses and our pumpkin spice lattes and that stupid fucking thing you kids have that puts dog faces on your photos (seriously, what is up with that shit?). And then we're gonna have to fuck up your British asses when you decide to come strolling up in here spouting some shit about tea or taxes or whatever."
You see, kids, we killed a bunch of motherfuckers to get where we're at today and we're still kinda lugging around a bunch of 200 year-old baggage because of it. The mere discussion of gun control in any form, let alone actual implentation, doesn't go over really well here because we don't see guns as tools like everyone else does. We see them as symbols of our independence and 'muh freedoms and bald eagles and shit, and our lives are predicated around the expectation that everyone else wants to come and fuck our shit up - not an entirely unwarranted fear given that we're the country who elected this asshole. We fantasize about putting bullets into anyone who tries to tell us what to do because we don't know how to stand up for ourselves when we actually need to. We'll talk about building a comically giant wall to keep out the sombrero people and their delicious tacos (at least until the fuckin' Kool-Aid Man comes crashing through it with a pitcher full of tequila) and then in the very same breath bend over and gladly take it deep up the ass from our corporate overlords. Yeah, gun control works in other civilized countries, but other civilized countries also aren't mired in a sea of deep-rooted psychological bullshit stemming from being fucked over on a daily basis by the people in charge of them.
This may surprise anyone who is both American and still reading this that a lot of really awful shit that you people think is normal isn't. We live in a country where a hospital can charge you two grand for the privlege of sitting in a waiting room for eight hours and then having a doctor tell you to go the fuck home. This shit's so out of control that there's an entire industry that revolves around helping people pay for basic needs that nobody can afford. And if your broke ass can't even afford to pay "insurance" money to what are essentially legalized mobsters, the IRS will just come along and fine your ass for it. At least the mafia just sends someone to break your kneecaps. We literally deal with people who have no money by charging them money, which is retarded on a level far worse than anything I ever saw in SPED.
And you stupid motherfuckers just sit back and accept this like it's just the fucking way things have to be because you can't see a way around it that doesn't smell like Communism, and that's bad because it means we'll all have to subsist on a diet of vodka and borscht and wrestle bears for a living and learn how to do that damned Russian squat dance. If y'all want to take on the big bad government and bitch at them to fix some bullshit that's actually their fucking fault, start with all that shit in the paragraph above this one. At least then when somebody shoots you, you'll be able to afford to go to the hospital.
Consider for a moment why it is that people tend to respond angrily to anything they don't understand and/or agree with, i.e. daring to suggest that we do something to keep assault rifles out of the hands of maniacs. It's because we as human beings are instinctively driven to protect ourselves and our tolerated ones from anything that threatens our sense of security and well-being. But when the system that is supposed to be providing that sense of security in the first place has not only failed us, but has also gaslighted the ever-loving fuck out of us, we suddenly have all of this negative energy with nowhere to go and it turns us all into a bunch of aggressive dicks. It's why political discussions of any sort in this country are synonymous with dumpster fires and we find ourselves wishing upon those with opposing viewpoints some sort of sandpaper/acid bath/Nickelback treatment - personally, that's something I'd reserve for spammers and whoever the fuck is repsonsible for keeping Daylight Savings Time around. And, more to the point, it's why so many of us wax poetic about the government prying our guns away only from our cold, dead hands.
But here's the rub - it's easy to look at the government as the cause of so very many of our country's problems because it's full of evil people who thrive on the misery and suffering of others, but the truth is that the government is merely a reflection of the real problem: society itself. Lest you be too quick to pat yourself on the back for being one of the approximately 6 billion people on Earth who didn't vote for Donald Trump, realize that America is not merely the country that elected him - it's the country that allowed him to become successful in the first place. Long before "President Trump" was something more than just a throwaway Simpsons gag, we saw a man with nothing to offer the world except being an insufferable asshole. And instead of reviling him for it, we revered him. We elevated a man with no redeeming qualities whatsoever to celebrity status, allowed him to amass more wealth than most of us will ever see in our lives, and it's only now that we take umbrage with him because he's finally in a position where he can do some real damage. Yeah, a perfect world would never have elected Captain Shit-For-Brains because a perfect world would have never produced him.
And that brings us back to what you can do about all of this. The one big advantage that you kids have in this fight is just that - you're kids. Further school shootings aside, y'all are going to be here long after the government bastards you're railing against are compost, and the only way that nothing is going to change is if you all grow up to be a bunch of shitheads just like the withered octogenarians that we're waiting on to hurry up and die off already. You can tell what a nation values most by looking at where its money and resources go, and it's up to all of you to take a good look around you right now and figure out exactly what's important to you. Do you want to grow up into a world where the wealthy elite are the most heartless and ruthless amongst us? Do you want a world where an honest day's work is looked down upon just because it's not part of a lucrative profession, even if (especially if) it's a job that needs to be done like cleaning our toilets or making delicious tacos? Or do you have a vision of a much better world in mind?
In the immortal words of Captain Planet: the power is yours.
February 21, 2018 - On The Nature Of Modding & Game Design
Like anyone with a job or hobby that attracts an audience, there are certain questions that tend to come up a lot to me in my capacity as a modder of video games... certain "frequently-asked questions", if you will. Today, I would like to take a moment to answer some of the most common/pressing of them.
Why don't you just make an original game?
Of all the questions modders are asked, this is easily the most offensive as it both belittles and completely misses the point of our craft. It's like asking someone who enjoys restoring classic cars why they don't just make their own. I'll talk about this in a bit more detail further below, but the short answer is that improving on an existing idea is an entirely different task from forming a new one and, more importantly, is no more or less valid a form of artistic expression because of it.
Why did you change "X" thing?
Game mods face a somewhat unique obstacle in that, unlike an original game, they are expected to justify their own existence. Design decisions are generally not scrutinized in a "vanilla" game to the degree they are in a mod, which makes a certain amount of sense given that players are actively looking for changes in the latter no matter how much its creator wishes they would treat it like the former. It's kind of like dealing with people who can't enjoy a movie because they're too busy comparing absolutely everything about it to the book.
Modders take note: no matter how stupid, arbitrary, or poorly thought-out anything in a base game is, no matter how minuscule or insignificant, someone will question your decision to change it. I've had people ask me why I changed the names of certain enemies in Brave New World when their original names were literal nonsense words so unremarkable that nobody (including the person asking) remembers what they were. And you can fall back on logic or reason all you want to justify your actions, but ultimately the answer will be "because I didn't like what it was before and wanted to change it". And one of the most important things to learn as a modder is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Why DIDN'T you change "X" thing?
Contrary to the above, the answer to this one is usually, "I couldn't". Modding is frequently bound by the restrictions of the source material or by how deep into the code we are able to dig, and things that may seem to the outside observer to be an easy copy/paste job often aren't. Also, do assume that modders (or at least good modders) have put a lot of thought into their final product and have considered all of the potential implications of even a seemingly small change.
That said, ask away - I've made countless changes to my mods based on player feedback pointing out something I just hadn't thought of, and at the very least you're likely to get an interesting piece of developer insight in response.
Why would you mod a game that you don't like?
As the designer of a prominent Final Fantasy VI mod, it often confuses people to learn that I am not all that fond of the original game. While some mods are created by people who are deeply in love with the game in question, these mods are rarely of good quality since their creators saw so little room for improvement. More often than not, they end up veering into bad fanfiction territory and/or falling victim to the philosophy of adding more stuff just to have more stuff with absolutely zero regard for how well any of it fits in or concern for existing content (AKA "Squaresoft Design Theory 101").
This is not to say that good modders hate the games that they are working on; something obviously had to draw them in, after all. But I've come to realize that too much reverence for the game you're working with tends to prevent good or even necessary changes for fear of breaking from the traditional and familiar - this mentality is the reason I am often bitched at for fixing legitimate bugs and exploits. Good mods are ideally born from an attachment to an idea (or ideas) by people with a vision of their full potential and, more often than not, a certain degree of frustration toward their flawed execution that keeps them from realizing that potential. And this frustration - something generally lacking in people who are already happy with games the way they are - is what drives us to make a better game.
On trial and error...
So, this is neither a question nor a complete sentence and it pertains to game design as a whole rather than just modding, but it's an important topic to discuss here given the prevalence of "kaizo" hacks out there in contrast to an audience that is generally more accustomed to modern game design. For those unfamiliar, the term "kaizo" comes from the name of one of the earliest known hacks of its kind: a Super Mario World ROMhack that utilized extreme difficulty as a form of comedy, winding up as a sort of self-directed schadenfreude. This was an extension of the very first such games - a trilogy of Super Mario Bros. hacks called Syobon Action or "Cat Mario" - whose difficulty stemmed entirely from their "puzzle" elements which murdered the player in increasingly ridiculous ways for taking the most logical course of action, thus forcing a purely "trial and error" method of gameplay that (along with the racist sprite hacks of yore) has since gone on to stigmatize modding as a whole. The term is now used to describe any ROMhack of difficulty sufficient to warrant pure trial-and-error gameplay and tends to be freely (and often unfairly) used to describe mods that introduce difficulty of any kind.
It's because of the above that Brave New World shies away from the "difficulty hack" label altogether, but it tends to draw arguments from players who (correctly) realize that it is, in fact, much harder than the original game. My personal take is that there seems to be some degree of resistance to the idea that the player should be made to think, that the game is a puzzle meant to be figured out rather than a mere interactive viewing experience. What some players label "punishment" is to me simply a part of the learning process. Learning involves experimentation, which by its very nature equates to trial and - more often than not - error. Brave New World was designed with the expectation that players would frequently die and be forced to rethink their approach to certain battles, but comparisons to games designed to make the player suffer are inaccurate and something that we wish to avoid.
There seems to be a commonly-held notion that a good game should be easily beatable by a blind player ("blind" in the figurative sense, not literal) without failure and that anyone who thinks otherwise is one of those "Dark Souls" weirdos. There is little acknowledged middle ground between games requiring no effort whatsoever and those specifically designed to be unfair, which from my experience manifests primarily as an unwillingness to experiment. Again using Brave New World as an example, one of its major design philosophies is that the random encounter system should pose a challenge to the player's abilities to figure out how to deal with them quickly and efficiently, or else they exist for no other reason than to waste the player's time. A big part of this is a wide variety of enemy weaknesses and resistances so that no one attack or tactic is universally effective, thus forcing the player to adapt to each individual encounter. Sounds good, yeah?
The result of the above design, however, brings to mind the cautionary advice of Mark Rosewater against fighting human nature. It's become somewhat of a meme in the Brave New World community for a new player to complain that "X thing is useless because everything is immune to it", with that "X thing" usually being wind damage. And it's not that this statement is even remotely true (approximately 15% of enemies in Brave New World resist wind damage) so much as that players are so rarely forced to attempt different strategies in the original game's design and are very quickly discouraged from doing so at the first sight of failure. The unfortunate ultimate result of this phenomenon is a refusal to move away from "tried and true" tactics even when they fail, with players stubbornly attempting the same thing over and over again rather than trying something new (which, by the way, is the definition of insanity).
And that's it for now. Perhaps in the future I'll do a "part two", but these are the questions that have been stuck in my head for awhile and itching to get out. Thanks for reading, and remember that modders are just people who perform a labor of love for no reward other than the hope that our work makes the world a better (or at least funner) place.
(Or get us laid. That's pretty nice.)
December 07, 2017 - In Which Sexual Predators Become The Prey
As I was watching a good friend play through our resident Final Fantasy VII mod the other night, I thought back on this aging classic and commented, among other things, that sexual harassment was an odd reward for a side quest. In light of the recent deluge of women - and men - who have at any point found themselves on the business end of a Hot Harvey Weinstein and are finally stepping forward to say something, it seems almost quaint to think back to a time when it was treated as a punchline. And I for one couldn't be happier about it.
This isn't to say, of course, that I'm glad to see so many people getting the The 'ol Kevin Spacey or a Charlie Rose Reacharound, but rather that this recent cavalcade of allegations is far more culturally significant than one may be led to believe. This isn't just some major victory for women's rights and everyone who's ever gotten some unwanted Matt Lauer Lovin' or some menstrual Earth goddess bullshit - it's the masses finally beginning to realize the power they wield over the wealthy elite. This is generations of unacceptable behavior from the rich and powerful finally spoken out against by those who once feared retaliation from the powers that be. For as long as any of us can remember, it's simply been accepted that if someone "important" gave you a Louis C.K. Special or a George H.W. Handshake, you simply accepted it and moved on because lowly peasants were powerless to act against the ruling class. But they are few and the unwilling recipients of Andrew Kreisberg's Arrow are legion.
What we've witnessed thus far is merely the tip of an iceberg that runs as deep as the pockets of those who are being brought down by it. People everywhere who've ever recieved a Rowdy Roy Moore, a Steamy Steven Segal, or a James Toback Tune-Up are mad as hell and out for blood. There are those who are calling this a scary time to be a man, but rest assured, gentle readers, that you need only feel the frightened puckering of your anus if you've ever given someone a Nasty Larry Nassar, an Al Franken Fistbump, or a Moist Terry Richardson.
I'll be blunt: nobody wants, has ever wanted, or ever will want a Roy Price Penetration, a Jeremy Piven Pounding, or a Brett Ratner Ravaging. There will never be any demand whatsoever for a Glenn Thrush Thrusting, a Mark Halperin Handy, or A Tony Cornish Cornh- (you know what, no, this one is too easy. There's low hanging fruit and then there's fruit that's lying rotting on the ground.) and there will most definitely never be an ounce of desire for a Raunchy Russell Simmons or some sweet Michael Oreskes Mackin'. These things are the societal equivalent of cancer in that everybody hates them and we are constantly seeking a way to eradicate them once and for all. And when they are finally gone, nobody will ever find themselves wishing that they could have a Dirty Dan Schoen, a Lewd Leon Wieseltier, or a Hamilton Fish Fillet.
The question, then, is why have so many powerful men fallen due to their poor life decisions to do the Dustin Hoffman Hassle or the Cosby Cuddle, yet Mr. "Grab Her By The Pussy" himself remains in power? Only time will tell for certain, but the optimist in me (the naive little bastard) says that we're saving him for the grand finale. I remain the only person I know who wasn't incensed to see him elected, partially because the guy is a comedy goldmine, but mainly because I had the foresight to see that his rise to power would inevitably lead us to this point - a point where we desperately needed to be. The revolution has begun, my friends, and when the dust finally settles it will be the purveyors of the James Levine Shuffle and the John Besh Grand Slam who are instead on the receiving end of a Firm Ben Afflecking.
December 06, 2017 - FAQs, ROMHacks, & Kitties: Oh My!
I recently finished writing my first FAQ in over a decade for the PS2 remake of the original Romancing SaGa, a game I'd highly recommend to anyone interested in an open-ended RPG. Rather than a complete walkthrough, as most guides are wont to be, mine is an actual FAQ that explains many of the game's notoriously obtuse mechanics to new players while still allowing them the fun of figuring out the rest of the game for themselves. Writing guides for games, as anyone who knows me from my GameFAQs days can attest, is what got me started on the road to modding as I quickly found that I wrote about video games as I wanted them to be, not as they were - sort of like how nobody ever created a fictional universe where the president was Donald Trump (except that one time when The Simpsons did it).
To call what I do a modding "career" is somewhat misleading since it's a hobby that I legally cannot profit from (although I cannot in good conscience turn down any willing donations to the help my broke-ass girlfriend send her cats to the vet fund; any money sent to me will go directly toward helping a furry animal in need.) Rather, I consider what I do to be a calling and I am blessed to have a day job that affords me plenty of spare time with which to work my craft. That so many people are unable to make a decent living whilst contributing to society in a meaningful manner - especially when there is so much to be done - is perhaps our greatest downfall and it gives me a great sad.
Ultimately, our problem has boiled down to our failure to come up with an acceptable answer to the question of the ages: how do you make someone pay for something that they can acquire for free? Our perennial response to this dilemma for most art forms, has been corporate sponsorship. In ye olden days, we freely watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the many shows that followed in its wake in exchange for allowing companies to bombard us with ads during piss breaks. This was, in a twisted way, the best of both worlds since the majority of us were free to ignore it and get something for nothing while the small percentage of people who bought insurance just because they saw a caveman doing it on TV kept the gravy train going for all of us. And lest you be too quick to pardon this societal contract for its lone merit, bear in mind that spammers operate on the same basic principle.
Of course, that was then and this is now. Times have changed, and the advertising-based revenue model went out of vogue with slap bracelets and blast processing. We no longer ignore ads - we ignore the shit out of them with technology specifically designed to block them out. This isn't an issue with regards to people like, say, me, who hate corporations and don't buy their shit anyway, but it becomes a real problem when its ubiquity starts to encroach on that one in a thousand demographic of people who see two douchebags in a car and decide to go get some food instead of stabbing whoever came up with that ad campaign in the testicles. And that's not even to mention that the attention-seeking nature of advertising has made it increasingly ill-advised - and in same cases even unsafe - to not use ad blockers.
Meanwhile, corporations have responded to this trend by passing the onus of figuring out a solution on to the content provider. Unlike in the days of television, where companies paid a flat cost, depending on the program, for a 30-second spot to annoy and harass people who lacked mobility and/or a mute button on their remote control, they now pay out purely on a per-click or per-view basis. This has led sites in droves to beg people to whitelist them, for all the good that will do. If the recent layoff-fest over at Cracked is any indication, people have responded in a clear voice that we're not even willing to so much as let our browser load an advertisement that we will then proceed to ignore in the name of funding our media, let alone pay for it. We hate ads that much.
It's somewhat perplexing, then, that something that we as a society loathe so vehemently is also the cornerstone of our economy. Even more vexing is that while piracy is vilified by all who worship at the altar of greed, nobody has ever (to my knowledge, at least) been brassed off to discover their work in a library: a public receptacle where art can be freely consumed by the masses while the creator is (presumably) compensated through government funding. In that light, it's quite unfortunate that our culture fails to view libraries as a legitimate source of artistic and journalistic content and instead as a place where homeless people can go to defecate and touch themselves.
So why hasn't this radical idea caught on? I'm no economist, but I'm guessing that it probably has something to do with our century-old hang-ups about anything that even remotely resembles communism and our love of sucking the giant, corporate cock. Despite the obvious hardships its encountered, companies are ramming their advertising dicks down the public's throat harder than ever in a desperate attempt to get someone to listen, and because our societal attitudes toward a romanticized ideal of capitalism are so deeply ingrained in our collective conscious, nothing is going to change until this entire system falls harder on its ass than Harvey Weinstein at a feminist rally.
So the next time someone gets on your ass for waving your pirate flag, just tell 'em you're supporting your local library.
November 25, 2017 - Twenty Years, Twenty Lessons
I had the opportunity recently to watch a speech given by the lead designer of Magic: The Gathering outlining twenty lessons he has learned about game design over the last twenty years. He speaks at length about game design as more than a numbers game and how it ties in to human psychology, and every point he makes is a point that I myself have learned and preached in my career as a modder. I would strongly urge anyone who has any sort interest in game development whatsoever to watch this video and take the advice given in it to heart.
On the same subject, the recent sale of Sid Meier's Civilization 3 on GOG has inspired me to blow the dust off of one of my oldest modding projects and clean it up for a proper release. Somewhere In Time is my attempt at perfecting the rules of the original game, which is in my opinion the best of all the Civilization games while ignoring all of the extra crap that the expansions bogged it down with. One of my biggest philosophies with game design - and one of the points that Mark Rosenberg discusses in the above-linked video - is that every addition should serve to further the game and that anything that exists for the sole purpose of adding more stuff needs to be cut. Less is more, and in Civ3's case, less was a lot more.
As for Brave New World, the next major update is currently mired in beta hell and will hopefully be out by the year's end. I'd like to thank everyone involved for their patience with getting everything sussed out. I need not look any further than the amazing community that has grown around my mod to know that Synchysi and I have truly accomplished something amazing with it. I love each and every one of you (except Scott - he's a dick).
November 11, 2017 - The Land Of The Free
So, today is the day that America has set aside to honor people who have served in its military. Speaking as someone who comes from a navy family but has never served, I just want to say that you need not subscribe to such jingoistic (or overdramatic) beliefs about our service personnel out there fighting for our freedoms and bald eagles and shit. These are just regular people who've stepped up to do a very unpleasant - and sometimes very dangerous - job, and it's because of them that the rest of us aren't forced into it. The least we can all do, regardless of how we feel about war or the practical joke gone too far we now call "president", is take a moment to let them know we appreciate them.
As for those who actually *are* out there fighting, it's up to us to make sure they've got a home worth coming back to.
October 27, 2017 - It's Raining Blood
Buffy The Vampire Slayer was a show that broke a lot of important ground, hence its enduring legacy even some twenty years after its release. Hell, it's even been studied at length in academia. But although it has many excellent and universally well-liked episodes, asking a typical Buffy fan what their favorite one is will invariably yield one of a very short list of usual suspects. Most likely, it will be the musical episode Once More With Feeling from the otherwise-lackluster season six. This is essentially Buffy's Stairway to Heaven (or Highway to Hell, if you're so inclined) in that any artistic merit it may have is completely overshadowed by that one obnoxious asshole who won't shut the fuck up about it out and Guitar Center employees will ask you to leave if you try to play anything from it. People who love this episode too much aren't quite at the level of "Mormons selling Amway" like, say, a typical Undertale fan is, but damn if they're not trying to be.
I mention this partly to apologize to non-fans of the show for these people (I am really, really sorry) and partly because my favorite episode is fairly well off of the beaten path of even just kind-of-liked episodes. Not that season three's openening act is a bad one by any means, but it's not something that tends to leave the same memorable impact as other offerings like The Wish, Dopplegangland, or pretty much any other episode where Allison Hannigan is more bangable than usual. Quite to the contrary, Anne hardly features Willow at all - or any of the rest of the cast, for that matter - instead focusing on a very alone Buffy in Los Angeles attempting to skip out on fate and failing tragically to do so.
Anne is unusual for a Buffy episode in that it doesn't really feel like an episode of Buffy at all due in large part to the absence of a supporting cast to bounce quippy one-liners off of (although Buffy does manage to get a pretty good one in on a random NPC). In fact, Anne feels very much like an episode of Angel to the point where I'm convinced that it was used as a template for at least the entire first season. In a series where the isolation of being a real-life superhero is a primary overarching theme, one which is explored most notably and thoroughly in its fifth season, Anne stands out as the episode where it we see it on full display for the very first time and arguably at it absolute worst.
A key facet of the slayer mythos is a tendency towards a drastically reduced lifespan due to unfortunate death in glorious battle. Buffy's continued aversion of this typical fate as the seasons went on was attributed entirely to her friends and family - ties to the world that all slayers before her explicity lacked. The show explains this both metaphorically and quite literally when her friend(s) bring her back from being only mostly dead in Prophecy Girl and then then again from being all dead in Bargaining. Not counting the three months she spent in the ground leading up to season six (or her downward spiral of self-loathing throughout it), Anne marks the only point in the series in which Buffy is completely cut off from her entire support group. And the end result is, as you might expect, very dark.
The theme of isolation would carry Buffy clear through its polarizing final season and into its grand finale where it is addressed and ostensibly put to bed once and for all by means of Buffy sharing her power with every other girl in the world with the potential to bear it. I call season seven "polarizing" in part because it pretty much plays out like one long episode starting at Conversations With Dead People (which is itself very polarizing) and partly because its primary villain, the "First Evil", is fairly benign since it can't physically affect the world in any way (except for in the aforementioned Conversations With Dead People when the writers forgot that) due to the fact that it can't assume a corporeal form. It thus spends most of the season taunting Buffy and friends with varying degrees of success, culminating in a finale that ultimately gave us more questions than answers. Namely, who in the hell thought anything about Buffy's plan aside from the bit about giving her entire army slayer strength was even remotely a good idea?
To recap, season seven pits Buffy and a small group of "potential" (i.e. "just regular human strength") slayers up against a legion of the undead from the pits of Hell who are under the command of the spirit of original sin itself. The only things that Buffy has going for her are two Deus Ex Machinas and the fact that the undead army can't actually get to her world because the portal to Hell is completely sealed off and can only be opened from her side. Buffy deliberately opens said portal once she decides she's had enough of evil's shit and leads her redshirts into Hell to do battle rather than utilizing the manhole-sized portal as a strategic chokepoint since the enemy outnumbers her by about a thousand to one. And she does all of this before Willow does magic stuff with one of the aforementioned Deus Ex Machinas to activate everyone's Wonder Slayer powers just so it can be extra dramatic when they kick in at the precise moment an undead horde notices a small group of humans in their midst and attacks. It's also worth noting that the subsequent activation of the second Deus Ex Machina, which is the only reason that the entire cast didn't wind up as uber-vamp food, was purely unintentional since nobody - including the person wearing it - had the even slightest clue what it was.
In short, Buffy is a terrible leader.
Chosen bothered me for many years not because it sacrificed logistics to tell a good story, but because its numerous flaws all felt like bad writing that could have been easily explained had Joss even tried. It would make sense, for example, that the one uber-vamp sent up to the surface to fight Buffy earlier in the season would be stronger than all of the ones still stuck in Hell's boot camp, hence why even the likes of Andrew and Anya were mowing them down by the dozens. More importantly, Buffy's incredibly ill-advised assault could have saved much-needed face without sacrificing any drama by having her actually attempt to fight intelligently but then having her hand forced by, say, the portal to Hell breaking wide open when she activated it and spilling forth Hell's (not) Angels before her group had a chance to react. The fact that Buffy had at least the foresight to position her various "B" teams in places where she knew the uber-vamps would go if (when) they got past her primary group clearly showed that she was aware of the need to think her plan through so as not to get everyone killed, and that she makes an active decision not to just feels insulting. It wasn't until I was recently rewatching this episode for about the eighth time that its true message finally dawned on me.
Buffy is a terrible leader.
This is actually addressed in the episodes leading up to Chosen, wherein Buffy is temporarily ousted as the leader of her ragtag army of slayerettes after she foolishly leads them into a battle against Mal from Firefly who proceeds to kill a bunch of them and gouge out one of Xander's eyes. Of course, she's welcomed back a few episodes later after her replacement gets a few of them blown up (but not killed and all with both eyes intact, just to be fair) and all is forgiven. All too often, however, is the very important message of this arc forgotten: Buffy is a terrible leader.
But why? She certainly not stupid; the standardized testing that she was actually present to take during high school in fact showed her to be of above-average intelligence in spite of her vocabulary, and Professor Walsh was impressed enough with her work at one point that she asked Buffy to lead a study group. Rather, Buffy is a terrible leader for the simple fact that her approach to any problem she's faced with is to hit it until it stops being a problem. She only utilizes her 'ol brainmeats on the rare occasion that she's up against something more powerful than she is, such as in Helpless when she's robbed of her strength and must defeat a vampire by tricking him into drinking holy water or when being hunted by Germans with assault rifles in Homecoming forced her to make them shoot each other. But why go to the effort of decieving your enemy when you can just put your fist (or a stake) through him instead?
As a real-life superhero, Buffy has absolute power, and it corrupts her absolutely, just not in the way you might expect. Buffy does not consider herself to be above the law, notably demonstrated when Faith accidentally murders the deputy mayor in Bad Girls or when The Trio tricks her into believing that she "accidentally" killed Katrina in Dead Things. Rather, Buffy is corrupted by her inability to respond to everyday problems in the same way that ordinary people do, which is in essence her "isolation" from the world around her. This is made clear when Buffy faces such issues as trying to hold down a job or dealing her mother's death, the latter of which Giles responds to by flat-out stating that Buffy needs a physical manifestation of her problems to fight. And again, the show literally drives this point home in the seventh season by giving her an ultimate villain "with no ass to kick".
Even Buffy's taste in men is a reflection of her isolated nature in several ways, the most obvious of which being that two of her three primary love interests are vampires. Comparing Angel to Spike is a thesis unto itself, but the relevant point to this topic is that Angel is shown to have a much greater capacity to plan his actions out, both as Angel and Angelus, while Spike is far more impulsive and prefers to recklessly throw himself into situations with little to no concern for potential casualties (at least of the non-romantic variety). Although Buffy claims an undying love for Angel throughout the series, she blows him off with one of the worst speeches in television history just before the final curtain falls and lands in the arms of the man who once cracked a joke about killing all her friends just to make her laugh.
(An alternative take on this is to see both Angel and Spike as varying degrees of corruption and her ill-fated relationship with Riley as the metaphorical paragon of good leadership skills and wordly ties. Say what you want about the guy, but he was the only character in the entire series who was ever smart enough to chuck a grenade into a nest of vampires while they were sleeping rather than trying to fight them hand-to-hand.)
So what does all of this mean? Well, it means that being a leader is more than being able to deal with all of your problems by punching them to death - or, to make a better real-world analogy, by throwing money at them. Being a leader takes a genuine connection with the people you're leading along with a full understanding of the problems they face from their perspective. Buffy got a lot of her troops killed and one of them gruesomely maimed in Dirty Girls because she failed to consider that her typical approach to the problem at hand wouldn't work for someone who couldn't pick up a steel beam like it was made of styrofoam, much like how someone who owns a golf resort has no comprehension of what it's like to have to choose between paying rent or eating, and pretty much with the same result. Buffy ultimately suceeded not through her strength alone, but by combining it with that of her friends (again, literally). On the other hand...
September 09, 2017 - A Priest, A Salesman, & The President Walk Into A Bar...
Ironically, the salesman is a better leader and a better Christian than the other two are. There's not much I can say about Joel Osteen that the internet hasn't already lambasted him for, save for the fact that he's been shown up by two men from professions not exactly known for their ethics. What I find particularly interesting about all of this, however, is that Mattress Mack is - both from my personal account and from friends who have referred to him on multiple ocassions as a vagina loaf - kind of an asshole. I've since learned (or perhaps been gently reminded) that I have a far greater respect for someone who does what is right despite being a jerk than for someone who is pleasant, yet immoral. And as the country swiftly forgets about the events of Harvey as all eyes turn towards the imminent assraping that Florida is about to recieve from his disgruntled mistresss, I feel that this is an important learning experience to keep in mind moving forward.
It's said that there are no athiests in foxholes. Similarly, there is no race or religion in the face of disaster: just people helping people. The good to be found here - if there is any to be found at all - is that trials like these bring out the absolute best in people. I've spent the last two weeks checking up on friends, family, and even expressing my deepest sympathies for complete strangers, all the while wishing that the world could be more like this even when it wasn't falling apart around me. The public roasting of Joel Osteen is significant here because it shows an entire city coming together to say in one memetastic voice that opulence and greed is the exception in this world, not the norm.
Even Donald Trump, professional douchebag and inexplicable leader of the free world, took one look at the mess here and decided to donate a million dollars to help clean it up. Despite the inevitable speculation as to whether or not the amount of money he earns in the time it takes me to get to work in the morning was actually going to come out of his own pocket (which speaks volumes about public opinion of the guy), it does appear that his unusual bout of generosity is genuine if not difficult to accept. Personally, I'd liken any amount of support coming from him to getting a check from NAMBLA.
On a similar note, I read an article that posed the question of whether or not he will be sending aid to Mexico following a recent earthquake there (that joke I made about summoning Captain Planet is becoming eerily accurate), hilariously basing their prediction entirely around the fact that he had as of yet not tweeted about it. It would certainly be the neighborly thing to do given that Mexico just did the same thing for us last week. At the very least I can assure our friends from south of the border that our president is currently hard at work rounding up our very finest laborers and construction workers to send down your way as soon as possible - you just have to look past the fact that it's not a gesture of kindness.
So I guess what I'm trying to say is that a lot of people are assholes, and that's all fine and well. In the end, you only need to look this far to see that most of us are still willing to step up and help our fellow man in their times of need.
And as for the few of us who aren't? Fuck 'em.
August 28, 2017 - *Glub* *Glub *Glub*
There's already a ton of this same thing on every social media outlet out there, so I'm going to keep this brief. I live in a city that is currently taking it up the ass from mother nature with no lube and minimal reacharound - at this point we're basically one South American kid and a monkey away from summoning Captain Planet. Houston is getting pounded harder than my ex-wife in a locker room, which is actually putting it lightly once you realize that this is a highway.
Anyway, there's a been lot of people, both from here and from other cities, out there day and night battling some seriously shitty, not to mention deadly conditions to make sure everyone is all right. And I'm going to speak for everyone here, from the people you've helped to those of us lucky enough to not have to be, that we appreciate everything you're doing and will continue to do. You are the true faces and voices of this country, not an evil Oompa Loompa with a Twitter account.
To everyone else, look out for yourselves and your loved/tolerated ones. Check on the people around you. Be the neighbor that you'd want to have if you were in trouble and really needed it, because one day you just might be.
Stay safe, my friends.
UPDATE: to all of you who are looking to donate to help out, but aren't quite sure where to send your money, local sportsball player and all-around nice guy J.J. Watts has set up a fundraiser page. This is where I would suggest donating to if you'd like to see your moeny go towards ongoing relief in the affected areas instead of just the initial impact.
August 14, 2017 - Livestreamer? I Hardly Knew Her!
First of all, to anyone who's had a hard time finding anything I've linked them to because I keep moving shit around on the site lately, I apologize. I'm done now, I promise. Second of all, anyone out there who ever watches Twitch needs to do themselves a favor right now and install Livestreamer. I cannot understate how much it improves the quality and control over watching streams nor how quick and easy the entire setup process is from start to finish.
Other things that are now up include a partial mirror of the perpetually-downed MyLitleFaceWhen and my own collection of desktop wallpaper complete with full download links on the miscellaneous page. There are 510 wallpapers in total, with about three of them being potentially inappropriate - naturally, these are the ones that my desktop randomizer likes to pull up whenever the Pope comes by for dinner (he's here all the time, fuckin' freeloading pope). There's a lot of variety in my collection of things that I just think look cool, and aside from ponies and redheads with eyepatches don't necessarily reflect any particular interest I might have. I mention this mainly becuase a recent event in which a certain cracked invidiual took the name "Charger" a little too literally makes me fear that some people might take one of them the wrong way.
The truth is that I keep that one around mainly because it amuses me just how much it looks like this one, and I don't think the similarities are at all coincidental. It's a rare bit of social commentary coming from a person who generally loathes it. But just so we're clear, I don't give a fuck which bathroom you piss in and your ethnic background does not make you a bad person - mistreating animals or blasting your stereo at three in the fucking morning does. Also, spammers.
In other news, an article on Brave New World will be appearing in an ebook entitled Somebody Set Us Up The ROM, available as a bonus title in the Summer Smash Game Bundle. For anyone out there who is still running version 1.8.5, please update to 1.8.6 to fix a number of game-crashing bugs (an admitted rarity for us) in 1.8.5. Another update is on its way soon, which should hopefully be done around the same time as the new custom box art from Retro Game Cases.
And just in case you weren't aware, these are totally a thing.
August 05, 2017 - Wait, You Can Download Cars Now?
I'm sure many of you out there have at least heard of RetroPie (not that Retro Pie), but for one reason or another haven't looked much further into it. Emulation is ubiquitous enough amongst even intermediate computer users (whilst beginners are too busy playing Candy Crush and eating paste) that the demand for a dedicated retro gaming system just isn't there. It's really not until you sit down with one that you can truly appreciate how much it streamlines the entire gaming process, not to mention that it allows said process to occur without occupying the machine that you view pornography with.
Thus, for anyone who is interested, I have penned a tutorial for setting up a RetroPie that covers the entire process, from purchase to configuration. I even provide links to my personal collections of boxart and manuals/foldouts to help speed up/eliminate some of the more time-consuming steps. Pretty much the only thing that I don't offer up on a silver platter are the ROMs themselves, mainly because I'd rather not steal traffic from whatever mirror KickAssTorrents is using this week.
While one may be tempted to brand me a Nintendo "fanboy" due to the extensive use of anti-Microsoft hyperbole I employ in the aforementioned guide, it should be noted that A) "fanboy" is just a word that people who like Halo use to describe people who don't like Halo and B) Nintendo is higher up on my shitlist than Microsoft is (albeit only marginally so) thanks to the entire AM2R debacle. For those who don't know what AM2R is, the short version is that Nintendo is butthurt that one guy made the best Metroid game ever while they were busy making crap. Needless to say, rather than doing what any ehtical company might do, they called the lawyers. While DoctorM64 himself calls upon his loyal fanbase not to hate Nintendo for their flagrant douchebaggery, I'm not in a position where I have to say that not to look like a tremendous ass. Such vehement aggressions in the name of copyright protection transform the law from a shield into a sword and are nothing short of an open declaration of war against everything that game modders such as myself stand for.
Consider the age-old rhetoric that dares to assume that the general public wouldn't download a car. Now consider that this advertisement exists in a surreal futuristic world in which cars can be mass-produced on an infinite scale at virtually no cost (or at the very least an insignificant fraction of what they cost today) and the only people who are upset about this technological advancement are big companies who look at it and can't figure out a way to use it to make money. It seems that most companies have yet to recieve the memo that it's not the responsibility of the people to keep them in business while they insist on clinging to an increasingly-outdated revenue model; if your business is threatened because a single man has made a better product than you and is giving it away for free, then he's not the problem - you are.
As for the RetroPie, it's your chance to own a better version of a product that Nintendo deliberatley produced in numbers far short of the actual demand and then just cancelled for no reason, thus proving that they've evolved beyond the need for making money and are now just getting their jollies by pissing us off. Fuck you, Nintendo - I hope you burn in hell.