Friday, January 21, 2011

Bring Back The Spice

Randomness and Unpredictability in RPG Characters
Role-Playing Games have greatly refined their mechanics over the years. There has been a noticeable trend towards increasingly well-balanced rules that give the players complete control over what type of characters they make and how those characters end up. This trend, taken to its furthest extent, might help ensure that no player gets an unfairly powerful character, but it also ensures that no character will really have anything all that unique.

Big Daddy
Nowhere has this trend been stronger than in the most popular RPG of all, Dungeons and Dragons. In 2nd edition, there were many campaign worlds that included random tables in character creation. Darksun gave everyone random psionic powers. Birthright did something similar with blood powers. 3rd edition whittled most of these types of thing out. 4th edition put the nail in the coffin by taking away random die rolls for ability scores. 4th edition ensures that everything will be fair by ensuring that everything will be nearly the same.

Gamma World’s Getting There
The recently released Gamma World set does bring back some of chaos. It has a lot of randomness in its character creation and its gameplay. Randomly generated backgrounds, starting equipment, treasure, and mutant powers work together to make a game that is truly bizarre and unpredictable. Unfortunately, Gamma World is intended to be a completely absurd setting. You might be a half-cockroach, half-bird who suddenly grows 2 extra arms while fighting pig men only to have those arms fall off a few seconds later and have a horn grow out of your head. Gamma World is fun and I love it’s absurdity, but I don’t always want to play an absurd game.

Take a Chance
Characters with random stats, random powers, or other random aspects can provide so much more than mere absurdity. These tools can provide characters that have truly special qualities about them. Whether underpowered or overpowered, when you have to roll to see how a character will turn out, what you end up with is something more unique than is ever possible with the perfectly engineered hero. The pendulum has swung too far towards a very bland brand of balance. I would love to see more games bring back a little chaos and lack of control. When you take a chance and roll the dice you don’t always make something perfect, but you do make something memorable.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Miner Dig Deep: The Best Dollar In Gaming

Last week, as I was rummaging through the heap of XboxLive Indi-Games, I stumbled across a true gem. Miner Dig Deep serves an important reminder that at the end of the day fun does not take fancy tricks or impressive polygons. A simple idea, well designed shines through.

Simply Wonderful

Miner Dig Deep's simple idea is all in the name. You are a miner and your goal is to dig as deep as you can. The game sports pleasant, if simple, 2D graphics and pleasant background music that helps set a relaxing tone. The game presents the player with a single shop and save point at ground level, and then meter after meter of dirt to be dug.

The player makes all his or her own paths and, digging ever deeper, finds new ores and minerals to haul back and sell. Lamp fuel and bag space serve to limit each run into the mine. While you can always see the pathways you've dug, lamp light reveals the location of precious ore and hazardous, unbreakable rocks that you have not yet discovered. As lamp fuel is used, the aura of illumination shrinks, revealing less and less. Eventually, you find yourself digging blindly, unsure of where the next hazard awaits you. When this happens, or when your bag is so full of treasure you can hold no more, it's time to ascend to the surface, sell all your loot and buy new equipment and upgrades.

Perfect Rhythm
Miner Dig Deep hits all the right beats. Every time the game encourages you to come up for air, you will undoubtedly have enough money to buy or upgrade your tools in some useful way. Almost every time you head back into the mine it is with a new toy to try out. The penalty for getting stuck or killed in the mine is simply being warped back to the top without any of the ore gained on your recent trip.

The only part that some players might find tedious is the trip back to the bottom of the mine to continue digging. As the mine gets hundred of meters deep, this can start to feel a little tedious. There are teleporters placed at various levels to warp you safely back to the surface, but you cannot warp back down. At first, I found this a bit frustrating. However, I realized that if the player could just warp back to the lowest point it would make the entire mine above irrelevant. Put in this perspective, the trip down became just another part of the game, and I found enjoyment in digging new paths to help make the descent faster. Additionally, you descend past previous mined areas with more lamp fuel at your disposal and often see ore that you missed before.

Bang For A Buck
Miner Dig Deep has an ending, but only after you've dug well past 1000 meters deep. My first play through took me almost 6 hours after which the game let me start a new mine will all my advanced tools. I had a blast as I dug all the way to the bottom again in 15 minutes. The mine is randomly generated each time, so I find myself tempted to start a proper new game and build a new mine from scratch all over again.

All this fun can be had for only 80 Microsoft Points ($1.00). I'm sure many people have at least that many points laying around as left over from prior purchases. I cannot remember the last time I was this entertained for so little money. Buy this game. You won't regret it.

If you do buy it, leave a comment and let me know how you liked it. Also, for a review of another game that presents simple fun, check out my friends at Growing Up Gamers as their 5 year old daughter reviews Sonic Colors for the Wii.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Gaming Disappointments: Final Fantasy Series

But First, A Quick Note About 4th Edition D&D…

Originally, for my greatest disappointments in gaming I was going to tackle D&D 4th Edition. However, my good friend Randy at Growing Up Gamers beat me to the punch. So, I will say just these few words on it.

4th edition D&D strips away just about everything that encourages role-playing and storytelling. It reverts years of D&D evolution back to something much closer to its roots as a miniatures battle game with the thin veneer of story. If all you want from D&D is a vehicle for playing classic fantasy archetypes who dungeon delve and hack up monsters, then I think 4th edition will serve you just fine. However, if you’re love of D&D stems from the love of experiencing heroic stories with unique characters where battles occur (but are not the entire point) then the 4th edition rules will lend you no assistance. True, intriguing stories and wonderful characters can be invented with no rules help at all. That doesn’t give Wizard of the Coast (makers of D&D 4th edition) a pass for removing all the customizable flourishes and non-combat abilities of class and character that helped D&D stories come vibrantly to life.

And Now…Final Fantasy

The original Final Fantasy was actually little more than a D&D adventure. The classes, the monsters, the spells and even some of the items were ripped straight from the pages of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. In the years that followed, Final Fantasy grew past its D&D roots to find its own voice and its own wonderful style. It then went on to lose its damn mind and exchanged its soul (and its gameplay) all in the name of pretty graphics.

It’s Hallowed Roots

As the Final Fantasy games continued, the series became known for its wonderful characters, interesting stories, and vibrant worlds. The actual gameplay was beloved by many for its sense of exploration, enjoyable character advancement, and epic scale. The story path was amazing, but off the story path you could find hidden spells, new creatures to summon, powerful weapons and helpful accessories. The only real complaint most fans of the series would volley is that at some point the combat in Final Fantasy became repetitive and was reduced to little more than mashing a single button to make everyone attack, win, and grind up a few more levels before a big boss fight.

The Beginning of the End

The hints of Final Fantasy’s doom came even during its peak days on the Playstation. Final Fantasy 7 had long, unskippable summon spells that were incredible to watch the first time and tedious to endure the 20th time you wanted to cast you powerful spell. With the move to Playstation 2, Square released Final Fantasy X…that last good Final Fantasy ever made. With X, there was a big sign that the series was going off the rails. It was the first time where you had no overworld map to explore and when you finally got your own airship, it was nothing more than a map where you could pick points to warp to and check out.

Check Points On The Way To Fail

From Final Fantasy X you’ve got a series of terrible mistakes.

Final Fantasy the Spirits Within: Cutscene hubris leads the company to release a theatrical length cutscene that is devoid of anything resembling Final Fantasy, but sure does look pretty.

Final Fantasy X -2: Harping their first ever direct sequel, Square releases a game that has nothing to do with its beloved predecessor. It has a nearly linear, mission based structure with dress-up Barbie outfits as the main form of customization.

Final Fantasy XII: Square decides to solve the tedious, button mashing combat by letting the player do tedious combat that requires no thinking or button pressing at all. The game still has some sense of exploration, but once again the overworld is absent and there is no real airship.

Final Fantasy XIII – The Big Fail

All of Final Fantasy’s blundering attempts to find a way to update its style and stay cool, culminated in an epic fail called Final Fantasy XIII. Final Fantasy XIII does accomplish one amazing feat. It makes the combat fun again. Which is good, because combat is all you will be doing. Gone is the exploration. Gone is any semblance of interesting treasure or locales. Instead, the game consists of running down a narrow corridor with no real twists or turns and fighting monsters. Then you fight a boss and watch a cutscene or two. Rinse and repeat for 30 hours of game. I hear it opens up eventually, but that's about 30 hours too late for me.

Final Fantasy has fallen from one of my favorite RPG series, to one of my least favorite RPG's of all time. Sadly, I can only hope that Square Enix can find a way to get Final Fantasy back on track...or at least give it a proper burial.

Attack or Defend

Please leave a comment with your own complaints or defense of Final Fantasy or 4th ed D&D. Or feel free to share some of you own great disappointments in gaming. Maybe a good cry will help us all feel better.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Wiz War: A Great Game You've Probably Never Played

Likely, many gamers have never played Wiz War before. It's been out of print for some time now. Well...I own it and love it. So, if you know me, you probably have played it a time or two. However, as there are rumors of a possible reprint this year, it seemed timely to extol the virtues of this happy little box of madness.

The Basics
In Wiz War, each player is a wizard trying to steal the other wizards treasure chests. Get two back to your base and you win. On your turn, you navigate maze-like tiles, attack other players, and cast crazy spells that create all manner of unpredictable effects. You can lose by having your hit points reduced to zero or having both of your treasures stolen and dropped on someone else’s base.

A Brilliantly Unbalanced Game
Most games try to achieve a well calculated balance. Players are given similar resources and powers. Die rolls and card draws have predictable probabilities. Balanced games help ensure a level quality of play from game to game and encourage strategic play. However, every so often it’s fun to play a game that throws balance out the window and invites you to go crazy.

Wiz War’s approach to balance goes something like this. Sometimes you will be capable of a few useful things. Sometimes you will rearrange the entire game board, trap players into inescapable prisons, and then teleport across the world. Unfair? Yeah, but it’s what makes the game brilliant. It’s the joy of the unpredictable and the truly mad. One powerful turn is balanced by motivating other players to aim all their nonsense at the new leader of the game. Wiz War rewards a sense of humor and creativity…not really skill or deep strategy.

Fun, Perhaps Not For Everyone
If you can’t stand the random, if you don’t laugh at absurd occurrence and if you need some sense of strategy…Wiz War is not for you. However, if you like creatively combining powers, if you enjoy the truly awesome and ridiculous even if it doesn’t go your way, and if you believe that revenge is a dish best served absurd, then there’s a lot to love about Wiz War. If the rumors of reprint prove true, I recommend you check it out.

Share You Treasures
Write in and let Cool Factor 5 know about lesser known or out of print games that you love. Also, check out my friends at Growing Up Gamers as they dive into a fantastic twist on a classic game: Stratego Legends.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Interview With Chrissy the Casual Gamer

My wife, Chrissy, is the author of the Muse of the Morning blog. She likes crafts, cooking, sewing, and sells her own patterns. She allowed me to interview her on her feelings about games and what it's like to be married to a gamer geek. The interview went long so look for part II on a later date.

ME: Do you consider yourself a casual gamer?

Chrissy: No not really.

ME: Do you consider yourself a non-gamer?
Chrissy: Yeah...most of the time.

How do you feel about your husband's (my) gaming habit?
I think that's its kind of an interesting pastime. Its different than what a lot of other guys do where there out building cars or whatever. So I think its interesting. It only bothers me when you want to go hang out with your guy friends, but I think that's pretty typical of all guys.

What's interesting about it?
Its just different and games are fun. You do bring home interesting games and things to try out.

What games do you like to play?
I like games in general that have a lot of strategy with just a little bit of randomness to them. In particular I love Settlers [of Catan]. Well I like the Cities and Knights expansion to Settlers.

Don't like the regular Settlers so much?
No so much because it can get kind of mean and if you don't earn it kind of just sucks. So I really like Cities and Knights and then there's Knights of the Rainbow which I'm not sure fits that whole strategy with a little bit of randomness thing. Its a lot of randomness. And it can get really mean but its kinda fun if you can take it all in jest.

My favorite game to play with you I think is Dvonn. Pure strategy, but its a lot fun. You know it's a two player game so it's a lot fun to just really beat the crap out of you. That's what I like about games.

Beating the crap out of me?
Mmmhmm, yeah. (Smiling)

Now I'm surprise you just named off a bunch of strategic games. What about games like Taboo or Scattergories or those casual games?
Oh, Taboo and Scattergories are good games for playing with bigger groups of people. I actually love, love, love Taboo or similar games like Catch Phrase. Scattergories I don't like as much.

Would you prefer playing a strategy game like Cities and Knights or large casual game like Taboo? Or is it equal just depending on your mood?
Yeah it just really depends on the mood, honestly. Especially those two games. Those are probably two of my favorite games really. Its just who do we have with us and what's a good game to play with the company that you're in.

What do you think about role-playing games?
Role-playing games seem to take a lot of time which is probably the reason that I'm not interested in playing them. There's a lot of sitting.

Well it's basically like playing pretend and pretending you're on an adventure. Does that even appeal to you?
No, not really. Not a type of game that I'm all that interested in. I don't mind reading about it [in a book] but I guess I don't want to make it up myself.

What do you think about video games?
Video games, with very few exceptions, kind of seem like a waste of time to me. Again it's that sitting and it seems very passive to me.

What about the video games you do like. You like playing Puzzloop and Zuma, right?
I do like Puzzloop a lot. And Zuma which is very similar to Puzzloop.

Do you feel like you're being passive when you play those games?
In the way that I mean passive, yes. I just mean not being productive. I like to have something to show for my day.

So what feels different about going out to a movie and just staring at the screen vs playing Puzzloop?
Well, going out to a movie usually has the benefit of also being a date. So I also get to spend time with you. So that would be kind of a different situation in my mind.

Do did you enjoy it more when when we played New Super Mario Bros Wii as a family?
Yes I did like Mario quite a bit. I could see myself playing it more but I'd have to be in the mood for it. I'm kind of a finicky person.

Do you get a different feeling from when we play New Super Mario Bros Wii as a family versus playing a board game as a family?
Well yeah in a way. If we're sitting around a board game table we're all looking at each other and interacting with each other in that way. Whereas when you're playing a video game you're just staring straight ahead. And even though you can talk to the person next to you, it's not the same as sitting face to face with somebody and being able to have a conversation even though the conversation is still about the game.

So you feel less connected to people looking at a screen than if you're looking across the table at them?
Yes, absolutely.

Do you think you are resistant to trying new games?
If I'm in the mood to play a game then, no, I'm not resistant to learning new games.

You've been uninterested in games, but recently you have played cards.
Cards I will almost always play.

That's interesting. Why are you more willing to play cards than jump into a board game?
Well because the games we play in cards, Hearts and Oh Hell, I know so well that I can just do it. And then its just completely a social thing. I just know it so well we don't even have to talk about the game. We're talking to each other and playing the game.

Is there anything about my gaming habit you'd wish I'd change or do different?
I guess not really. I mean, I wish you'd just always have your friends to our house because that's more convenient for me, but I understand that that's not really possible. I like it that you play games and I like it when you have friends over and there's a house full of people playing games or even role-playing, though you say it's going to be 6 hours and really its 12. I kind of like that and I like having people over. So no, I don't really think there's much I would change.

With your side of the family, what game is the most fun to play?
With my side of the family, Taboo, hands down. All the time. Love it.

What games do you prefer to play with my side of the family?
Your family is all about the cards. Love the card games. They know them really well and that makes it nice for playing. No one's asking about the rules, except your nephew who cheats and doesn't know how to play in suit. That's kind of fun to yell at him too.

Cool. Is there anything else you'd like to do to fill out the 13 minutes before the film runs out?
Um, I'm pregnant and I have to pee so I'm going to go do that.

I'm very thankful to my wife for putting up with my antics and giving the interview. Check back next week to hear her perspectives on games and video games in regards to our daughter. Also, please check out the latest post from our friends at Growing Up Gamers.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Bonus: House Rule For Cities and Knights

As a Cities and Knights bonus post, here is a house rule that my friends and I enjoy for Cities and Knights. It actually came from a misread of the rules. Once we learned the actual rules, we decided we still liked our version better.

Cities Walls Protect You From the Robber
City walls are supposed to “protect you from the robber” just by increasing your hand limit by 2. When a 7 is rolled you can have more cards in hand without having to discard.

We like to play that they also prevent the robber from stealing from the city that has the wall. The robber can still land on the hex and shut down that resource. The player that moved him can still steal a card from any player with an unprotected city or settlement next to that hex. However, if a player’s only settlement on that hex has a city wall, that player cannot have a card stolen. It makes the city walls a bit more fun and also gives you a way to discourage people from shutting down your most important resources.

Expansion Required: Cities and Knights of Catan

Settlers of Catan is a fantastic game. It has the distinguished honor of being the first “gamer game” that I was able to enjoy with my extended family and casual gaming friends. If you’ve never played or even heard of Settlers of Catan…first of all, where have you been? That game is practically on its way to joining the ranks of Monopoly, Clue and other classic family board games. In Settlers, essentially, players roll the dice each turn to see what resources are produced. You gain resources depending on where you’ve built settlements and cities. On your turn, you trade and spend resources to try and build more settlements, roads and cities to try and get to 10 points worth of structures first. It’s a lot of fun.

Cities and Knights
Settlers has, I believe, 1 ½ billion expansions, variations, and alternate versions of itself. Seafarers, Spaceship Catan, Settlers of the Stone Age, Traders and Barbarians, blah blah blah the list goes on. Ignore all that noise and get yourself Cities and Knights.

Cities and Knights adds some much needed extras into the world of Catan. By itself, the original can get a bit dull after a few players. It’s particularly dull when your game isn’t going so well and there’s not much you can do about it. Cities and Knights helps this out by giving you more to do with fewer resources. Here are the highlights.

The Jump Start
Instead of starting with two settlements, you start with a settlement and a city! With cities giving commodities for buying various improvements, it makes for more options at the start of the game and a greater variety of strategies to pursue.

City Expansions and Special Powers
Cities now earn you commodities and commodities are used to build city improvements. This isn’t terribly detailed or complex. When you can, you spend commodities to flip pages in this little flip book to represent general improvements you’ve to the trade, politics or science of your cities. These improvements can earn points, give chances at earning special cards, and gain you access to up to 3 special powers. Trade gives you a 2:1 port for any type of commodity, Politics lets you make level 3 knights, and Science, my personal favorite, lets you take a resource of your choice on any turn where you didn’t earn anything.

The Barbarian Hoard Vs. The Knights
This expansion also adds a third die which is rolled each turn. The die either lands on a color to indicate a type of special card that might be earned or indicates that the barbarians have moved closer to Catan. The barbarians have a strength equal to the number of cities in Catan and when they arrive, you'd better be ready. Each player can build knights to defend Catan. When the barbarians raid, Catan is either defended (earning some players points or cards) or it is not (costing some players to change a city back to a settlement). Then the countdown to the next raid begins again. The barbarians provide a fun alternate way to earn points and an important consideration beyond “build what you can, when you can.”

Progress Cards
Cities and Knights removes the Development Deck and the Largest Army reward right along with it. Instead, developing different areas of your city (Trade, Politics and Science) gives you a chance every single turn to earn Progress Cards in the areas you've developed. Trade helps you gain resources, Politics lets you mess with other players and Science helps you build. The Development Deck of the standard game often gives you the same card (knights) over and overt and that card is mostly used to be a jerk and steal from people. Progress Cards provide many interesting and useful abilities that often help you without having to screw over other players. More importantly, by choosing how you develop your city you also choose which types of cards you want to play.

The Best Way To Play
Cities and Knights does add some complexity into the game, but this complexity is worth the pay off in fun. I haven’t played all of the expansions to Settlers and I haven’t played all of its variations. However, I’ve played many of them. Most of them rank as fun, but not that great. Cities and Knights injects just the right amount of extra consideration and alternate strategy. I’ll play the base game with new players for a bit, but I don’t truly enjoy Catan if it’s not played with Cities and Knights.

If you’ve never played Settlers, buy the base game and give a try. If you’ve played Settlers and it’s beginning to get a bit dull, buy Cities and Knights. It’s the best way to play.

Please leave a comment about your Settlers experience or expansion to other games you wouldn’t want to play without. Also, check out my friends at Growing Up Gamers for their take an important expansion to another game I love: Race for the Galaxy.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Game Changers: Dominion

Incredible variety, intricate customization, and elegant simplicity. No game I've played before strikes this balance quite so well...

The Basics
Each player starts with a deck of 10 cards: 7 copper and 3 points cards. Each turn you draw 5 cards, buy a card for yourself, and then add that card to your discard pile. When you run out of cards, you shuffle your own personal deck (now containing the cards you bought) and continue playing. Treasure cards help you buy stuff. Action cards do special effects. Points cards do nothing but clog up your deck...but they also win you the game at the end.

The Crazy Fun
Dominion has two base sets: Dominion and Intrigue. You can buy either one or both. Each comes with 25 different special cards in addition to stacks of basic points and money cards. Each special card comes with 10 copies. Each game you play, you choose 10 unique cards and set out a stack of 10 for each of these cards. Between the base sets and all the expansion there are over 100 unique cards and an incredible amount of unique set ups that are fun to play. Every game set up can be a little different.

The Amazing Elegance
Despite all its wondrous variety, Dominion stays simple. Draw 5 cards, play what you can, buy something you can afford. This recent Christmas, I taught family members (casual gamers) to play in a matter of minutes. They loved Dominion and had no trouble understanding how to play despite the available cards changing every single game.

The Real Game Changers
Each expansion to the game seems to magically give Dominion more variety without increasing it's complexity at all. No matter what the specific cards do, it's always draw 5, play cards, buy something. It's also the only board game I've played that's enjoyable as single player entertainment. As the owner of Dominion, I have spent hours glancing over the cards trying to determine interesting set ups to play. This is fun by itself, but then of course I get the reward of actually playing these set ups with friends later.

If you're going to buy Dominion, shell out the extra cash and get at least one expansion to go with it. When you get that expansion, get Seaside or Prosperity. The base game is fun for a bit, but these two expansions inject a healthy dose of flavor and fun.

Please leave a comment and let me know about games that have changed your perception on gaming. Also, get the skinny on a video game changer, Heavy Rain, with our friends at Growing Up Gamers

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Seven Deadly Sins Of Video Games

I wish these sins were to be found only in bad games. Unfortunately, the seven sins of video games are annoying practices that mar even the best games today. Old habits, lazy shortcuts, and easy patch ups that the video game industry just can't seem to stop doing. I submit that if a game makers want to ensure quality in their games, they would do well to avoid these sins at all cost.

Unskippable Cutscenes
This one is a classic complaint but video game designers continue to inflict this prideful pain upon their players. Sometimes I’m re-playing the game. Sometimes I’ve died and am trying again. Sometimes the designer has just written a bad story I don’t care about. It doesn’t matter. The player should be able to skip over any content that isn’t actually interactive with the press of a few buttons. Games are meant to be played. Don’t prevent them from being played by deciding cutscenes, tutorials, and panoramic scenery shots are more important than a player’s wish to actually play the game.

Fat Price/Lean Game

The notion that games shouldn’t be judged on length and price is absurd. For $60 dollars, I want 10 hours of entertainment minimum. For this cost, I could go see 7 new movies, buy 8 paperback books, or buy several DVDs which I will watch several times each. All of these would provide well over 10 hours of entertainment. If you know you’re making a 5 hour game, give it a 5 hour price.

Rinse Repeat Game Design

Aaaand if a game is coming up a little short on time, the way to fix that is NOT to just add in more pointless wandering, longer levels, or forced backtracking. It doesn’t matter if a game’s got the worlds coolest main character, awesome graphics, and intricate enemies, things need to change up on a regular basis. If level 2 is basically level 1 with slightly different enemies and a differently painted back drop it should be cut or replaced. Repetition with little or no variation kills the pacing and the fun in any game.


Sniveling Tactics To Avoid Piracy and Resale

When a game’s sales tank, whiny designers like to blame piracy and used game sales. They writhe with envy believing that someone has “gotten away with something." The response? Obnoxious copy protection and forced downloads. Sometimes content that clearly should be a part of the game is chopped out and made into a download. Sometimes players must jump through several hoops to satisfy arcane copy protection. Either way, the game makers is a jackass and needs to knock it off. Make a better game or market the game better. Any other tactic just punishes loyal customers who paid for the product. It makes it more difficult to enjoy the game and harder to recommend it to a friend.

Zero Tolerance For Failure

A true fun-killer. One missed jump, one ridiculously powerful enemy, or one unfair level and all the fun comes grinding to a halt while you once again traverse familiar and increasingly boring terrain hoping this time you won’t make the same terrible mistake. Bizarrely, modern games still like to throw this in at the end of the game to present a “real challenge” and create a “climatic moment”. All it really does is kill the fun for everyone. Games need to keep a good flow. Either reset the player less than 10 seconds away from the failure point or better yet, find a way to let them fail, suffer a consequence, and continue playing the game anyways.

Meaningless Collectibles and Sidequests

Games are often filled with collectibles and sidequests in the hopes that they will divert the players attention from the main game, extend the length of the game, and add some variety. Too often, however, these diversions offer no real value to my experience. They feed on my desire to fully complete a game and my lust for a hidden widget that might be interesting. They also drive me to distraction. I find myself resenting the game for encouraging me to waste hours on useless junk hunts. True I don't have to pursue these optional goals, but the designers are often so good at drawing my attention to the least fun part of their game.

Bad Endings

If I’m going to go through all the trouble of finishing a game, it would be nice if the designers had taken the trouble to finish it first. Too often a game's epic experience sums up in the worst way possible. Endings are too short, non-interactive, and come across as a complete afterthought. A game's ending needs as at least as much consideration as it's opening. Reward the player for playing through the entire game. And P.S. Cliffhangers don't work in video games. Ever.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

How To Be A Good King (In Fable III)

The Dilemma

Fable III presents the player with an obnoxious dilemma. You are a new king. The kingdom has been ravaged by a tyrant. There is a terrible threat that will soon wipe out the whole kingdom unless you raise enough money to raise an army to save everyone. Unfortunately, the kingdom has been overtaxed, overworked, and pushed to the brink. There is great need for help from the government. If you offer this help, you are doing the right thing, the people will love you, but the coffers run dry. The people will flourish right up to the point that they are wiped out from this foreign threat. Ignore social programs, raise the tax, and let the people suffer and you collect a lot of money. Ultimately this money will save the majority of the people even though they will hate you and hate their life. At that point, what have you really saved anyways?

Real Morality Isn’t Binary

The solution to these types of funding problems, to me, is a progressive tax system. The wealthy pay a lot and the poor pay little to none. The wealthy can afford to pay a lot of taxes and still live in giant mansions and the poor can’t afford to pay anything because they have other needs…like food and maybe, god forbid, a night out for themselves once in awhile. Not being able to provide basic needs for your family is a legitimate concern. You’ve got a right to complain. Not being able to afford that second summer home on the beach is not a legitimate concern. You’ve got the right to go cry to your mama and snuggle a teddy bear until you learn to act like a socially responsible adult.

Fable III doesn’t really have the nuance to cover a progressive tax system. It’s morality is binary (or close to it). You raise the taxes or you lower them. You make children work in a factory or pay a lot of money to make them a school.

The Fable III Solution

The one thing that Fable III does allow you to do is to contribute personal money (your hero’s in game money not real world funds) to the kingdom. From this, I devised a tax system that seemed decent and fair. I lowered taxes across the board. Then I bought a lot of businesses and a few large homes. On the stall vendors that sold food and other necessities, I lowered the prices to the point where I gained no profit. On the luxury places like weapons shops, pubs, and ridiculously sized mansions, I raised the price to the max. To my mind, this means that the poor have more money and can easily afford the necessities and the well-off will be paying more to enjoy those finer things in life.

The Fantasy and The Reality

In game terms, I’m earning over 100,000 gold from my businesses every 5 minutes of game time (respectable but still not JP Morgan kind of profits). I’m then dumping the money into the kingdom coffers to pay for every last restoration project imaginable. So far, the kingdom is improving and I have every expectation that I will have plenty of money to avert disaster. In the real world a senate full of Republicans recently held up healthcare and equal rights legislation to ensure a continued tax breaks for the wealthiest 5%. Fable III’s system is a fun fantasy indeed.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

3 Gaming Wishes For The New Year

1. Wish For the Board Game Industry

I wish you would produce a rockin’ awesome adventure board game. Not a decent adventure board game. Not a kinda fun adventure board game. A rock-fricken-awesome adventure board game. Thus far you have let me down for many a year. What I want is simple. I want fun characters that improve, neat loot, somewhat strategic gameplay, interactions that are more than just combat, and I’d like it to play in an hour or less. Okay, maybe not so simple…but seriously. Get on it.

2. Wish For the Video Game Industry

I wish you would figure out the next big thing. It’s not Xbox Kinect. It’s not Sony Move. It’s not another console launch. Maybe it’s 3DS, but I kind of doubt it. 2010 had some very good games, but nothing that I was just dying to play. Please make something totally new, something good and then hype it like Moses on a mountaintop. I just want to be more excited about video games in 2011 than I was in 2010. Surprise me…but like in a good way for a change.

3. Wish For Myself In Gaming

Julian, I wish you would design and playtest 3 games. I know you worked hard on Cool Factor 5 but haven’t playtested it yet so I’ll even count that one if you get on it soon. That’s like only 2 ½ games to design and playtest. It doesn’t even matter how good they are. Good is nice, but finished and playtested is better at this point. It’s okay Julian. I know you can do it. Quit making excuses and make time instead.