Monday, November 22, 2010

When Games Are Just Too Gamey

This is the issue I have with many role-playing games. To me, a role-playing game is supposed let you get a bit lost in a fun story and take part in its creation by playing a character. However, two many times a game that’s supposed to draw you in like this, fails to do so because it just has to keep reminding you that it’s a game. There are two main ways that role-playing games do this.

Clunky Mechanics

When you’re in the middle of a fast paced action scene most role-playing games want to resolve things round by round, step by step with a multitude of rules that cover a great many things that can happen at each step. This can give players a lot of control but it can also become so unwieldy that players no longer feel like they are in a daring combat. Instead they feel like they are waiting in line for their turn at the fun.

Game Language

To play a role-playing game you have to describe what your character is doing and the game master has to describe how the world reacts to that. However, there are game mechanics driving all of the outcomes and inevitably players and game masters start having conversations like this:

GM: “You need to roll 14 to succeed.”

Player: “Does my +2 terrain modifier apply to the role?”

GM: “When is it supposed to apply?”

Player: "In Urban environments. We’re in a town right?"

GM: “Yeah but this is more rural than urban. It’s not a very big town.”

Player: “Okay, I got a 13. I guess I failed.”

And so on. Pretty exciting scene, eh? This could be right in the middle of a combat with a horde of orcs bearing down on the players, but the conversation sure doesn’t make it sound like much is going on. True the players and GM could jazz it up by talking at length about the swing of a sword or the deep wound it lands, but the rules don't encourage that conversation. They encourage talking about numbers.

Cool Factor 5 Attempted Solutions

For the game I’m designing, I’m attempting to address these problems. My hope is to create streamlined rules where players can accomplish cool actions without getting bogged down by clunky rules. To this end, I am trying to institute a simultaneous round where everyone goes at once. I'm also speeding up resolution by making it a standard difficulty to hit most of the time.

I'm also working on game language. The Cool Factor 5 RPG is about light-hearted, fluffy, action-packed fun. I want to build it with language that reflects that. Difficulties that need to be rolled can be expressed as Kinda Cool, Pretty Cool, Very Cool, and Extremely Cool. This means, roll 5, 10, 15, or 20. Players can use different skills in different styles. The styles are Awesome, Chill and Slick for being energetic, thoughtful or tricky. When a player makes a roll they are seeing how cool they can be at that moment. So instead of asking the player to make a skill check against a difficulty class 15 and the player replying “I rolled a 17” it can sounds something like this:

GM: You need to make an Awesome Gun check to be Pretty Cool. (Player rolls) How Cool were you?

Player: “Wow, that shot was Very Cool!”

It may sound ridiculous, but the games supposed to be silly and fun. The hope is that by allowing players to use this kind of language to convey game information it will help reinforce the fun theme and avoid game conversations that sound like reading of a technical manual.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Rock Band 3 and Four Loko

I'm running behind on my blog posts this week so I decided that at 3:30 in the morning after arriving home still possibly inebriated from a can of four loco and having played Rock Band 3 for nearly 5 hours straight would be the perfect time to post. Here...we...go.

Four Loko
This is a fricken 24 ounce can of 12% alcohol that comes in various flavors and includes a gracious amount of caffeine. So it'll get you messed up and keep you energized all at the same time. Apparently the FDA has ruled that it needs to be taken off the market because it they feel it is targeting kids (or so my drunken buddies have informed me). It does have a fruit punch flavor so I can see the argument...on the other hand I've heard that flavor is awful so maybe it would deter kids from alcohol. I don't know. I had the lemonade and it's kind of like a Mike's Hard Lemonade with an extra kick in the ass. It was a friend's 30th birthday or I would not have downed the stuff. I'm not sure why the demands of a friend turning 30 at midnight on a work night are important to follow...but indisputably they are.

Rock Band 3
See...I'm on topic. This is about a game, too. Rock Band 3 is awesome (if you like the Rock Band series anyways). I know it's got a super expensive keyboard option and a super expensive pro-guitar option. It's unfortunate that these cost so much fricken money. However, even without these, Rock Band 3 is worth your money if you like to rock out with your friends. The adjustments are subtle but many and they all increase the fun of just getting together with friends to rock out. Here's a short list:
  • No Fail mode is a standard setting you can put on and still unlock achievements
  • After pausing, the game will back up a little bit to help you get back on track.
  • You can unlock achievements in multi-player mode
  • The individual instrument difficulties are displayed on the same screen that you are selecting difficulty on
  • You can add/drop a person mid-song
  • You can add/drop an instrument without backing out to the menu
  • You can change difficulty mid-song

That may not seem like much but basically it means that you can finally play Rock Band as a pure party game, adjusting anything you need as you go along and getting full credit for playing together. This, in my opinion, is the pinnacle of party/music games.

Still being up at 4AM on a work night when you get up at 7AM

This is a bad idea. I will regret it tomorrow. However, on occasion, it is important to do. It reminds you that your friends are more important than one good day at work. Besides, if you can't endure one night's worth of bad decisions what's this life coming to anyway. Or so says my stupid, semi-drunken brain.

Monday, November 15, 2010

What is a Role-Playing Game

Ah nah son, are we really tackling this one? Daaaaamn.

A classic question answered by many role-playing games (RPG’s) the world over. An RPG is about the only game I know that feels the need to constantly explain to new people the very nature of its own existence. Talk about a board game, card game, or video game and people get what you’re talking about. But an RPG apparently still needs to be explained despite the fact that Dungeons and Dragons has been around for over 30 years. I’m working on an RPG right now so here’s my stab at it.

Have you heard of video games?
Yes? Great. It’s like that. Well it’s like a non-electronic version of that. Instead of a computer program deciding how the world works, you have a person telling you how the world works. Instead of graphics on a television or monitor, you’ve got the limits of your imagination and an occasional visual aid. Role-playing games are about a group of friends getting together to go off an adventure. One person runs the game and decides what the story is, where it takes place, and the basic direction of the plot. The rest of the people are players. Each player has one character. Together, with a few game rules, they try navigate the challenges of the story and direct where the story will truly go by making decisions for their characters.

Why not just play a video game?
Do ya like freedom? Yeah, me too. No matter what you've see in sci-fi movies, they will NEVER make a computer system that is as limitless as the human imagination. Played World of Warcraft? I hear it’s a great game. Now when you've fought a big boss in WOW, have you ever lured him out of his dungeon onto a battlefield that’s more advantageous for you? Have you ever negotiated with the boss and asked him if there was deal that could be made instead of fighting? Did you ever herd hundreds of chickens at the boss to distract him? How about just slapping him with a fish to see what he would do or bash down the walls of his dungeon with your giant war machine? You may have done some of these things, but I doubt they were all options for every boss in the game.

In a table-top RPG, there are rules to determine how well something works, but nothing dictates what you can and cannot try. You will never tap a button and get the same response from a random person you are talking to in the world. The game master remembers what you’ve said, so everyone you speak to has something new to say…every time!

Faster Sequels
Designing adventures can take a lot of time. Sometimes it takes me 8-10 hours to design an adventure I’m going to run. However, I hear it can take like even longer…like years even for some game designers to design a whole sequel to their video game. In the time you spent waiting for a new video game to come out or the next WOW patch to be released, you could have possibly spent hundreds of hours playing brand new adventures in your favorite table-top RPG (provided you and your friends had the time to get together).

Game Together & Surprise Each Other
The best thing about RPG’s is that with so many players pouring their personalities and imaginations into the game, anything can happen. Surprises can lay around every turn. The more effort the players put in to making the game interesting, the more fun they get out of it. With such a creative, collaborative effort, there is no other game with all the possibility and fun of an RPG.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Ze Frank: Spastic Spirit of Creation

So I made reference to Ze (pronounced “ZAY”) Frank on yesterday’s post and I decided that I should do one full post just on him. He’s that awesome. He’s also partially the inspiration for me to do this blog. His 1 year long video blog called The Show was amazing both in its regularity and quality of content.

Why Play With Ze?
Well sports racers, what’s incredible about Ze Frank’s work is that most of it is unpolished, completely spastic, and filled with life. Ze doesn't seem to be bothered by a need to overly refine a good idea; he’s got 10 more things he needs to try. While this means that the web toys, music and art that he creates are often rough around the edges, they are also raw, pure and wonderful. Sometimes his work is just plain silly (nothing wrong with that), but it also connects people across the world in really beautiful ways. He seems to me to be a true artist in that he’s always creating something new and expressing something unique.

Ze Exposé
I highly recommend you check out his work. Good for a laugh, good for a smile, and very inspirational. There’s lots to play around with on his website and his latest TED talk (that’s Technology, Entertainment, Design) is well worth watching:

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Bustin' Out of Wonderland

“I give myself very good advice, but I very seldom follow it.” – Alice, Disney's Alice in Wonderland.

November is National Novel Writing Month. The requirement, as a I understand it, is to write at least a 50,000 word novel starting on November 1st and getting it done by November 30th. The goal is not to write the next great masterpiece in literature. The goal, simply put, is to take on an enormous creative task and actually produce a finished work. A complete story.

Brain Crack
Now, I don’t have much interest in writing a novel. My passion is game design. However, the noble goal of producing a finished work is something to admire and aspire towards. I have drawers, boxes, and computer files littered with once great ideas that almost got finished. Ideas are cheap. Anyone can have an idea at any time. Execution is everything. While something is just an idea, it’s a cool concept with endless possibility.

The web artist/comedian/toymaker Ze Frank refers to this phenomenon as brain crack in one of his amazing video blogs:
Basically while you’ve got an idea, it’s pure possibility with none of the problems of actual design to bog it down. It’s easy pat yourself on the back just for having it.

Half-Baked Still Ain't Dinner!
A partially finished idea isn’t much better. It’s all the possibility of an idea with the parts you “just knew were going to be cool” figured out just enough to seem real without actually being useful. It feels slightly closer to being a reality, BUT you still can’t do anything with it. You didn’t tackle the tough challenges, make the difficult decisions, and you didn’t form it into something useable.

In game design, forming something useable is incredibly important. Playtesting, ultimately, is what makes a good idea become a great game. To playtest something, you’ve got have a finished product. It doesn’t have to be complete with everything you wished it would have. It just has to have a start, a finish, and rules to make it into some kind of playable game (even if it’s not quite yet the game you want it to be.)

Man Up! (Or Woman Up! …as the case might be)
Now, I’m like Alice in the quote above. I often give myself great advice, but following it is not always easy. As Morpheus from the Matrix would say, “There’s a difference between knowing the path, and walking the path.” Very Buddhist of him. That’s what I love about the idea of National Novel Writing Month. No excuses. No worrying about quality. Just man up, woman up, grab whatcha got and get something done. I see no reason why this kind of healthy, slap in the face challenge has to be limited to writing novels in November. It does, however, need to be limited to a short time frame.

My Challenge
I have been kicking around an idea for a role-play game using a system I call Cool Factor 5 (name sound familiar?). It’s been a partially done idea for some time now. On the first weekend in December, I am going to playtest it. Hopefully it’s awesome. It may suck. But it WILL be done enough to play. Throughout the month I will post a few bits and blurbs about what the game is and why I think it’s such a “great idea.” The challenge is to do this with no excuses about time and energy. I’m starting a new class today. My work is coming into its busiest time. I’m trying to produce a play for my daughter’s preschool and it needs some organizational work done this month. I can’t slack off on any of that. However, I will find the time to get this game done.

Your Challenge
You! Yes, you there! My quite possibly non-existent readers! If you are reading this, I challenge you to join me. Join me now even if you are reading this in February 2015. The stars are in alignment, your horoscope looks good, and fate is holding your hand. Pick something you’ve been telling yourself would be a good idea. Something that takes some effort. It can be building something, organizing something, or just about any kind of creation that suits you.

Right now, give yourself a deadline approximately 30 days out and GET IT DONE! Hold yourself accountable to it. Post your declaration in the comments of this blog and then post back when you’ve completed your masterpiece/project that was good enough to call done. Even if it sucks, you will be many times more awesome than someone who just keeps patting themselves on the back for a good idea left not done.

Let's Do This Thing
Wonderland is a great place to visit, but not a great place to live. Most people living there are quite mad you know. Bust out! Make something real and just possibly spectacular. Because I don’t want any of us to be addicted to brain crack.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West - Review

Why I Wanted To Play It

In a Fall season filled with video games that can’t muster more than mild interest from me, I was playing game demos on the Xbox and hoping to happen upon something fun and different. Enslaved is what I found. The demo was fun, dramatic and ended with an interesting beginning. Your muscle-bound character escapes from a slave ship as its crashing into New York City. The escape is a daring mix of jumping and climbing along the exterior of the ship as it crashes through tall buildings. You fight some robots with a fun energy staff and make it to the outside hull of an escape pod just as it blasts off into the city. New York is obviously abandoned and has overgrown into some post-apocalyptic jungle.

You land in the jungle and are knocked unconscious only to awaken and find out you’ve been enslaved anyway. A young girl has hacked a slave helmet and put it on you. Somehow the game actually makes you pity her. She has enslaved you, but promises to free you as soon as you’ve safely escorted her to her home village safe and sound. If she dies, the slave helmet will automatically kill you. An unusual way to pair up a team, but it had me wanting more.

How I Got It
I was strapped for cash but excited about playing a new game I’d never really heard about. Just as I was trying to figure out what games I could sell to get Enslaved...weird...a beacon of hope shined from a Redbox at Albertsons. Redbox had never offered games before but there it was: Enslaved the video game for $2 per night. Fate, it seemed, would have me play this game. I rented it immediately.

How it went
Fate would also thank me kindly not for making a full purchase. I beat the game in 3 nights, and I do not feel the need to go back and play it again. However, I do not spend time, effort and two extra nights to beat crappy games.

What Thrilled Me
Enslaved was fun and entirely worth a rental. The game’s big successes are in its story and its ability to deliver some really big scenes. The characters are fun and their relationships are different than you’ve seen in most stories. The game has an enjoyable take on life after an apocalypse and the ending is very satisfying. You will find yourself fighting gigantic robots and climbing on enormous structures as they move, shake, and fall apart. There a huge bosses to fight, levels that are fun to climb around, and a girl that’s worth having as your AI partner.
This is probably the games greatest triumph: the inclusion of an AI partner that you come to appreciate rather than despise. Despite the fact that you must escort the girl to her village, this game is never an escort mission. Though she is put in peril a few times throughout the game, I never had to restart the game because I failed to protect her. The game smartly gives your companion useful powers that make her an appreciable addition to the journey. She is responsible for your upgrades, scan enemies for weaknesses, and is a wiz with technology in ways your character could never comprehend.

What Chilled Me
While the game’s got a hell of a start and satisfying end, that chewy middle part starts to taste a little bland. The game begins to get a bit formulaic as it goes on. You’ll climb, jump, help the girl get to an important area, and repeat. There will be new types of robots and new types of bosses but the overall design remains the same. The levels are vibrant and varied in their aesthetic, but they are a shallow mask over level design that remains fundamentally the same from start to finish. The game is entirely a linear path and what you do in the first few levels will be much the same as what you do for the entire game.

Furthermore, the game commits a few video game deadly sins. There are occasionally parts that become frustratingly hard or unclear as to what you need to do. You never go too far back when you die, but you will find yourself watching short, unskippable cut scenes multiple times. Finally, I encountered a glitch on one of the later levels that made me reload and replay about 10 minutes of the game.

And How It All Turned Out
None of the problems with Enslaved were frustrating enough to make me stop playing. I was always excited to see the next bit of story and explore the next new landscape. I genuinely enjoyed the combat and the platforming through most of the levels. Nonetheless, I was glad to finally reach the end. The game did not have me begging for more. Enslaved doesn’t quite warrant a purchase, but for a one time thrill ride, Enslaved is well worth a rental.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Who The Hell Am I?

Well one idea straight out the window. I had intended to start posting my fabulous new blog posts all last week and that...didn't happen. I may have to revise my expectations. 5 posts per week might be very unreasonable. I won't got lower than three though. Still I'm going to give it a real try this week. I've got one post ready to go and ideas for several more. This post, however, is the last preparation post I want to do. In case your curious about the person who is writing this blog.

I've been debating how much of my actual information to share, but I think you want to know something about the person whose work you read. You want some idea on where they are coming from.

My name is Julian Leiberan-Titus. I'm a child of the 80's (Teen Age Mutant Ninja Turtles were awesome!), a teenager of the 90's (even I knew grudge sucked), a college kid of the 00's and towards the end of 2010 I find myself about to turn 31. I'm displeased with my job and studying to get my Masters Degree in Secondary Education to become a high school Social Studies teacher (though I am consistently doubting myself these days). I'm happily married and have been with my wife for over a decade (though only married for 7 years). We have a 5 year old daughter and another child on the way (don't know the gender yet). So I'm a happy husband, a proud father, a dissatisfied worker, and still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.

Code Names Are Cool
I thought about just going by an online handle. Somewhere along the line, despite how awesome the movie Hackers is, code names on the net became a little uncool. People seem to want to have genuine interaction and its just not as geniune to be reading the writing of Dragmorian as it is to be reading the writing of Julian.

Still, the net is about being what you want to be and Dragmorian is the code name I've been rockin' since AOL days back in 1995. An online handle is about a persona you want to be even if it's not quite what you really are.

What I truly want to be is a game designer. Card games, board games, video games, you name it. I want to design it. This is where my greatest passion lies. I've designed many many games about half way. It's damn tough to finish with a game you're satisfied with. Still I go on trying. I don't know if it will lead me anywhere, but I love to write and I love to design. I can't help myself. This blog is about trying to build me into the habit of producing a finished product that people can see and interact with. I need that out and I need to build that habit. Cuz I can also be way too lazy. I don't like my job but I could work it for quite some time if I don't force myself to stop it and really try for something else.

Help, I'm trapped in nutshell.
Well that's enough to sum up where I'm coming from. Hopefully it gives you some context for what you're about to read. Some that stuff may sound glum, but overall I love life. It's crazy, exciting and you never know what's coming next. I'm exciting to try out something new and I hope you'll have fun reading it.

A Final Note On Language and Behavior
I was torn on what language level to use on the blog and I've decided to go with "whatever's good enough for cable TV is good enough for me." So probably no F-bombs (or very few) but other slang and cuss words will be used as appropriate. Never to insult anyone kind enough to be leaving comments on my blog, however. Even hateful comments. If you do respond or reply to anything on this blog, I ask that you conduct yourself with good manners and try to say something interesting and useful rather than just derrogatory. Thanks.