Night Time Is The Right Time For Zombies

Today was, as can be inferred from yesterday’s post, a very gaming-centric day. The morning saw me finishing up work on the cooperative crime card game I’m developing, and the afternoon held the first playtesting session of the same. It was… educational.

Developing a game is very much an iterative process. Initially you start off with a set of rules, a set of goals, and the tools that the players can use to achieve those goals. In a competitive game, the primary opposition comes from other players, therefore resources should be plentiful but finite. However, cooperative games pit all the players against a preset scenario or challenge, and as such the resources there should be scarce but valuable. Americans have an ingrained sense of competitiveness when it comes to board and card games, and as a result for beginning players, the concept of cooperation (within the game framework) can be a little tricky to understand; however, once that slight paradigm shift is taken, coop games become frantic, tense affairs.

In the session today, three friends and I made a ton of adjustments to the rules that I’d laid out a few weeks prior and codified a bit more solidly last night. It turned out that, while I had made some surprisingly astute and balanced choices in designing certain parts of the game, I made other elements of the game far more restrictive, to the point where a game could be made unwinnable within the first two turns. While I was a little dismayed to note that I’d basically hamstrung the players, it was observed that “it’s easier to loosen up restrictions than it is to tighten them”. Rather than being limited to only one card per turn, for example, players can now play up to their full hand as long as they don’t play more than one card “colorlessly”. (That isn’t a word, I know, but for some reason the spell checker isn’t saying it’s not. Odd.)

In the end, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to refine the game mechanics. It turns out I may need to create a fourth deck for fewer players; I totally messed up the card balance in the “bad things” deck; and there are general tweaks and errata here and there that need to be resolved before we can playtest a “beta” version of the game. Fortunately, I have time to do just that.

Maybe not tomorrow, as I have a pretty busy day ahead of me, but we shall see.

Oh, the zombies? Yeah, you can guess what game I played tonight with only candlelight beside me and the headphones on.

Decked

Quick note tonight, folks, based on a project I need to keep under wraps for just a little while longer. I spent a significant portion of today hunched over my desk, scribbling words onto cut-up index cards. Because of this, it occurred to me that I haven’t done this much writing by hand since college.

Which is why I’m going to go take another dose of my usual pain medication and go to bed, because parts of me hurt that weren’t even involved in all the writing. Ow.

They Don’t Pay Me Enough For This

I’m gonna try an experiment with this blog over the next thirty days (since it’s not like I have much else to do in the meantime). I got to thinking about the way I’ve spent the last week: at work I’ve been focused on my tasks, getting myself ready for this coming month or so. But outside of work I’ve been a neurotic, frazzled mess because I’ve been bombarded with advertising. Not advertising from a marketing group, or advertising from a company, but advertising from people who I’m fairly certain aren’t being paid to advertise. It’s mostly been negative advertising, too: trashing certain products, implicitly praising others (or sometimes not so explicitly). Sadly, I’m just as guilty, which frustrates me to no end.

Fortunately, I have the chance to do something about it. So, for the next thirty days, I’m not going to write about any commercial products on this blog. None. If it’s a proper noun that’s not a person’s name (and, in the case of names, the person isn’t a celebrity or brand in their own right), I ain’t typing it here. It might not make a difference in the grand scheme of things– I almost certainly know it won’t– but it’s mostly just a way for me to gauge how easy or difficult it would be to “genericize” my life.

The thing is, I’ve complained at length about how we’re not supposed to be defined by what we own. If we allow our possessions to speak about us on our behalf, we quickly become slaves to them, because not everyone has the same perception of that object’s brand, make, or model. By tying what we have to who we are so closely, we objectify ourselves more than any sleazy magazine could possibly do– we become passive objects, things, instead of individuals acting on the world, people.

I’ll still post. It’s just that I’m going to be telling you more about what I’m doing, rather than what I’m doing it with. The Twitter feed is going to go generic too– heck, I can’t even say “Twitter” come tomorrow! The only exceptions to the rule are going to be e-mail (and even then only work-related e-mails) and technical forum posts (because it’s damnably hard to get help with a program when you can’t say the name of the program). Since we’ve got two days left in January, we’ll say that the product placement floodgates re-open on the first of March. Oh, and yeah, it’s not like I’m going to stop playing games or watching TV or anything like that– any Game Clear notices are going to be post-dated to the 1st as well.

And, on the off chance that you’re a corporation, celebrity, or other interest who might think this is going to be harmful to you somehow, first, please stop doing drugs. Second, more seriously, there is a way out of this. I will “unlock”, with full disclosure on this blog, the proper nouns and trademarks related to a company if and only if that company pays me $5000, cash, up front. That doesn’t mean I’ll post about it every day– just that, if I wanted to, I could. Third, there’s a catch: each time a company buys me out like that, the price goes up by a thousand dollars for the next one. (I don’t expect to make a single red cent on this, mind. Just tossing it out there in the interests of full honesty; every man has his price, after all.) Companies considering this, ask yourself: is word-of-mouth really that important to you? I could easily turn around and say that your company is a bunch of shallow, money-obsessed drones. That’s basically what years of negative advertising has created with word-of-mouth: six billion people who will more readily drag your trademarks through the mud than recommend you to anyone else.

Believe it or not, folks, tonight’s a busy night. So I’ll just leave you all with that little thought. Have a generic night, and tomorrow have a generic day.

Hype Poisoning

The iPad was announced today. I can see how it would be kind of cool, and I’m thinking oh dear you’ve already stopped reading. I’m sorry, did I offend you by not frothing myself up into the righteous nerd rage that is demanded of me simply because it did not meet up to the specifications that everybody and their brother pulled out of their asses the past three weeks? And I’m not saying that just to be colorful, I mean it quite seriously– some of the speculation, including from people who honestly should know better, was clearly made from whole cloth once the event occurred.

I made a point last night and this morning to gently remind people that nothing was “confirmed” until the event actually occurred. Naturally, nobody listened. They started harping on the event for not providing what was “confirmed”– specifically multitasking, any update to the iPhone’s OS, support for Chocolate-Chip-Muffins-Over-TCP/IP 2.3, that sort of thing– instead of remembering one important thing.

People lie. Everybody lies. I guarantee you 95% of the “confirmed” leaks were “confirmed” bullshit thrown around by trolls and misinformation mongers. When you get that kind of a noise-to-signal ratio, there’s only one sensible thing to do: disregard everything. That way you can retain your objectivity and look at the device on its own merits. With that said.

I’m a little surprised at the iPad for not exactly having a clear idea of what it’s supposed to be. Then again, I didn’t care for the iPhone either. The more I thought about it since the end of the event, the more I realized that quite frankly, this version of the device isn’t for me. Just like the original iPhone wasn’t for me, and how waiting for the 3G turned out to be the right thing to do. Just like how waiting for a little while on the 360 and PS3 was the right thing to do; just like how I should have waited for the Rock Band 2 peripherals (I don’t regret that one nearly as much); etc. etc. The iPad is a good device, and a good start– but it’s not for me yet. When the technology matures, and developers start showing off some cool things to do with it, I’ll consider it.

And now that what I hope is a fairly reasonable and level-headed set of remarks is on here, you may proceed to the comments, whereupon shortly you will find a thousand people calling me a retard for not immediately hurling all of my Apple products off a cliff in retaliation for this “atrocious”, “boring”, “useless”, and “lol” event that I just got done saying disappointed me. If you want you can even go ahead and add vitriol to the pile.

Demolitionist: Bayonetta (360)

I sat down a couple of days ago with the “First Climax” demo of Bayonetta on the 360. Granted, I don’t really think I’m much in the target demographic for this game; by that I mean I’m over the age of sixteen. Really, Bayonetta does not have a whole lot going for it beyond the maximum boobage factor, and even then, I would seriously doubt the sanity of anyone who honestly finds that character model in the slightest bit attractive. I mean, come on. There’s sexy, there’s too sexy to be real, and then there’s “there is no way in hell she could even walk, let alone balance herself on derringer high heels“.

Okay, so she does have glasses. Minor point there, but putting glasses on what amounts to a polygonal RealDoll won’t get me to admit that there’s anything else worth drooling over.

If there was any real substance to the gameplay, though, I could have forgiven Bayonetta for being hormone overdosed. The game plays out like, well, Devil May Cry. Except without the… yeah, seriously, when you try to get over the fact that she’s trying way too hard to be a fetish object, there’s nothing really all that interesting here. If Platinum Games has done anything to the DMC formula, though, it’s only served to make the game worse. The tutorial level shows you how to do some of the basic moves, but then you’re thrown into a stage that looks like the guys at Platinum watched Dead Fantasy about fifty zillion times and took out anything copyright infringing. It’s in this stage where you realize the tutorial lied to you: you don’t get to see the over-the-shoulder view when performing the rapid-fire gun-kata bullet storm move; the camera is zoomed out so far back that you can barely tell which character is you, let alone when to dodge for the Witch Time slowdown effect; even if the camera wasn’t a thousand yards away, you still can’t discriminate between Bayonetta and the tall, gangly, ambiguously-gendered things she’s fighting; and worst of all, it just never stops. I mashed B and Y for about four minutes, then the game told me I was done with the level (and that I did badly), and then there was a pure cheesecake shot of Bayonetta walking in a train.

That’s when I realized exactly what Bayonetta is. It’s cheesecake. It’s basically Maxim. It talks a big game, with “climax” this and “child of the light” that; but in the end you’re still not gonna see any of the good stuff because a tactfully-choreographed knee, or elbow, or strand of hair is always going to block your vision. The game’s a big tease. It would be better if there was at least some redeeming quality, either in the gameplay or the visuals, but there isn’t.

I suppose that it’s telling, then, that despite it being a big selling point of the game, I never once saw the “climax” finishes. There’s something poetic about that, I think.

Save and Quit: Dawn of the New World

A sequel, it seems, is probably the riskiest endeavor a creative individual can undertake. On the one hand, it continues a story that many people found to be very enjoyable, and it can usually mean there’s going to be a pretty sizeable number of sales to be had from just those people alone. The problem is, though, it means that you have to top your previous work, without cheapening it. Creating a new bad guy behind the original one, having some other threat come along that was just waiting for the time to strike, or introducing new characters that far overpower (or at the very least put to shame) the original cast– all those are guaranteed ways to alienate fans of the original.

Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World does every single one of those. And the kicker is, somehow, it all comes together nicely.

Rather than taking the approach that Final Fantasy IV: The After Years did, by continuing the story with more or less the same engine as the original, Dawn of the New World adds a slightly different spin on the current Tales combat engine. Battles are still in the free-running Linear Motion Battle System that Symphonia used, but on occasion after putting down a monster, it will hang around after the battle to see if you want it to join you. It works like a randomized, Tales-ified version of Pokemon. Unfortunately, it suffers from the fact that there hasn’t really been any game that properly copies Pokemon’s catch-em-all mechanic. Worse, as the game went on, fewer and fewer monsters made such an offer after battle. And possibly even more damning, because monsters grew in levels much faster than the humans, they don’t offer a whole lot of incentive to evolve them (returning them to Level 1, a la Disgaea’s reincarnation mechanic) or, for that matter, to catch other monsters once you have a group you feel comfortable with. In point of fact, after about the sixth or eighth hour of gameplay, you’re almost always accompanied by enough humans that you don’t need to have a monster in your active party. Great concept, crappy execution.

It could easily be argued, though, that nobody plays JRPGs for their battle systems. At least that’s not the case with me, anyway, as I’m usually more attracted to stories than stick-waggling. (Oh, on a related note: there’s no waggle controls here. The Sorcerer’s Ring is aimed with the IR pointer… more on that later.) Dawn manages to be a very well-thought-out extension to the seemingly-concluded story set forth in Symphonia. After the completion of the previous quest, the worlds of Sylvarant and Tethe’alla were merged back into the one they were before. To put it succinctly, this did not go well; the political systems of the two worlds were totally incompatible, and all hell broke loose (almost literally). This culminated in an attack on (Dawn’s protagonist) Emil’s hometown of Luin, seemingly led by Lloyd Irving (Symphonia’s protagonist). Things happen, and Emil links up with a seemingly-repentant member of a militant group, Marta, who bears with her a mysterious stone.

In true Tales fashion, though, the story starts off cliche and quickly spirals out of the realm of mediocrity. That’s not to say it doesn’t stick with certain cliches, but, well– you know how spies are told that if they’re in danger of blowing their cover, to play it harder? Dawn manages the same thing. It takes cliches, spins them a little, and pushes them to their breaking point and beyond. It’s not a profound story, it’s not in-your-face, and it’s not anything that’s unique or overly spectacular. It’s strictly formula, it knows it, and it plays it to the hilt. Suffice to say, if you like the Tales formula, you’re going to love Dawn.

The Tales formula, it should be noted, is composed of two things. The first, and the one major problem I have with the formula, is that its dungeons are laid out in the most frustrating fashion possible with the Wii’s hardware. Graphical details obscure paths, and I’m sure that if Namco could have dragged more polygons out of the processor they’d be hidden further. What compounds this is that the dungeons, especially later in the game, contain unhealthy amounts of backtracking thanks to the Sorcerer’s Ring. One dungeon, the Temple of Lightning, is a monstrous pain in the ass due to the fact that it requires you to go back to the main room no less than ten times in order to proceed, its only saving grace being that there is also a full-heal save point in that room. It took me three hours to get through that dungeon, not least of which because the encounter rate was jacked up to “obnoxious” as well. I wouldn’t mind either shorter dungeons, or longer dungeons that are split up more so that it feels like you’re making some kind of progress.

On the other hand, the Tales formula also relies on extremely strong characterization, and Dawn manages to crank this up pretty far, too. The game is punctuated with optional skits, which are simple talking-head conversations between characters. While some of these are the usual dramatic “what are they thinking?” kinds of things that you’d expect from a serious story, the vast majority of these are flat-out hilarious. Since they’re fully voiced in this game (something the original Symphonia lacked), they just become even more funny. From complaining about each other’s cooking, to playing with stereotypes of the characters and their “expected” behavior in situations, they wind up being one of the better parts of the game. After each main-line story bit, I found myself hesitating as I approached the exits, finger readied on the C button to start the skit whenever I saw the prompt. The skits easily are one of the biggest selling points for the game… or rather, the series as a whole.

Overall, it’s not really fair to say that Dawn of the New World is an “average Tales game”. Granted, it’s not better or worse than any other installment of the series, but you have to consider the series for a second. The Tales games are among the best that the JRPG genre have to offer, ranking in my estimation right up there with Final Fantasy and Wild ARMs. Calling Dawn an “average Tales game” is kind of like saying it’s an “average hundred-dollar bill”. Or an “average Lamborghini”. I’m probably going on to Tales of the Abyss for my next big RPG project, but that’s a little ways off, I think.

Gamerscore Milestone: 13000 Points

Today, my Xbox/Games For Windows Live Gamerscore exceeded 13000 points. The achievement that put me over this plateau was “Magic: The Puzzling (10G)” from Magic: The Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers. My current count for achievements is 720 individual achievements across 88 games, totaling 13005 points. The average value of each achievement is 18.06 points, with an average count of 147.78 points per game (Xbox.com reports 23.62% gamerscore completion and 28.31% achievement completion, with five fully-completed games). It took 40 days to reach this point from the previous plateau of 12005 on December 17th, 2009. 60 achievements were collected in this time, totaling 1000 points, with an average value of 16.67 points, and a collection rate of one achievement approximately every 16 hours.