Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.

Dec 10, 2018

What I Want for Dragon Age 4

So, Bioware finally teased Dragon Age 4, and "tease" is definitely the operative word.  The information content was pretty close to zero.  They did show the Red Lyrium Idol from Dragon Age 2 that drove Bartram and Meredith nuts, so that's kind of interesting.  Meredith had it made into a sword, and it blows up during the end fight.  However, that may not have been the only idol in existence, and according to one Dragon Age wiki, Samson's sword Certainty was supposed to be that same sword, reforged.  (Reforging literal dust is quite a trick, but whatever.)

As an aside, this really further cements the feeling I had that choosing the Mages in Dragon Age: Inquisition was the "canon" path.  The Templar path felt REALLY lackluster and tacked-on, with basically no lead in or in-depth interaction.  The interplay with Dorian, Felix, and Alexius and Alexius' entire corruption and downfall and the interactions with future versions of various characters was STAGGERINGLY better than anything whatsoever that happened on the Templar side, which had MAYBE 1/5 the dialog AND included a TIMED SECTION just to make CERTAIN that you rushed through it as quickly as possible.  Samson is a MUCH better villain with a strong parallel to Cullen's personal plot.  Alexius actually has some idea what's going on, so he sets up the Elder One quite dramatically.  The Templars are clueless, so they can't really set anything up effectively.  In terms of how well the two sides are integrated into the rest of the story, there's just no comparison.  Mages win hands-down.

ANYWAY, I've compiled a list of what I'd like to see them do in Dragon Age 4.  So, I'll just jump right in.

Part 1: Gameplay Features

  • The Search mechanic.  I actually liked this feature (or I liked it more than just holding down Tab to highlight everything that you can possibly interact with as far as the eye can see).  So I'm happy enough with them keeping this as a game mechanic.  However, please don't take this as license to have 95% of the quests be scavenger hunts where you go around and collect X number of things again, THANKS.  I'm not opposed to the occasional scavenger hunt.  Things like "take all of the camps" . . . that makes sense.  You're trying to establish control of territory.  Cool.  Exploration markers? Also cool.  Random collectibles scattered around for no damn purpose?  No.  MULTIPLE random collectibles etc.  NO NO NO NO.
  • Class-specific obstacles.  These were also okay, in fact, I wouldn't mind seeing them expanded, but for Pete's sake WHY would you have ONLY ONE CLASS (Rogue) have a "upgrade locked" version of the feature?  Mages and Warriors can just Do the Thing, but Rogues have to buy not just one, but TWO upgrades to be able to open all of the locks in the game.  AND IT WASN'T EVEN THAT BIG OF A DEAL.  The only value of this feature was if you're a Super Completionist type who just HAS to open everything.  So, don't lock it behind UPGRADES as well as having the class present in your party.  Or, if you do, have the same scale of upgrades for all three classes.  If you want to go whole-hog and actually try out good game design, you can even have multiple ways to bypass different things, and a (slightly) different result depending on which way you pick!  Such as, if you have a Warrior bash a chest open, it'll destroy potions and ingredients, but if you have a Rogue pick the lock, all the delicate stuff in the chest will be fine. I'd actually be fine with MORE class-specific obstacles (or class-specific approaches) if it meant getting things like stealth, knocking out guards, using magical distractions, etc.
  • The War Table was kinda cool, but it was very one-dimensional, and the real-time passage ticker for events to complete was a HUGE DRAG and very bizarre in a game where there's no visible passage of time.  Resources need to be a bit tighter and there need to be more trade-offs involved in the missions.  Choosing some things should cut off other things or leave you super resource-strapped.  In other words, it needs to be more dynamic and interesting.  Also, don't force a return to base to issue new orders.  That's what messengers are for.  If you minimize the number of busywork returns to base, it'll feel like there's more interaction content with your companions and staff, because you won't hear "nothing new to talk about" so dang often.  Constantly leaving areas and coming back also completely screws with your perception of the passage of time.
  • The horse was a completely pointless feature.  The areas were (for the most part) too small and too convoluted for it to be fun.  I'd be fine with dropping it altogether.  When people were complaining on the forums about the first two games not having any horses, I'm pretty sure they meant more that they'd like to see some horses around the place, and, say, CUT SCENES where people ride horses or wagons would be cool.  You know, some indication that this society has invented transportation other than just "your feet".  For verisimilitude and stuff.  If you want to keep the horses, you need to make them a full-fledged game feature.  Design areas where horse-riding is, if not required, EXTREMELY DESIRABLE.  Have chase scenes, or high-speed escapes, that sort of thing.  You don't necessarily have to have horseback combat (although this would not be a terrible thing if you have the resources to do a decent job), but integrate it into the game.  Design with horses in mind.  So, say, have open areas in the game that are huge and sprawling but also don't contain much stuff.  Then have narrower areas (caves, canyons, stands of trees, etc.) where you can't really have horses.  Put the fighting and interesting stuff in those areas.  I realize that this means I've basically said "treat the horse like the MAKO from Mass Effect".  Well, I actually liked the MAKO.  I didn't like how empty the planets were, but I did enjoy driving around.  Additionally, if you get rid of the magical teleporting horse-summoning ability, you can have little puzzles where you have to figure out how to get your horses past an obstacle, or leave them here and pick them up on the other side.  Mark them on the map and you don't even have to remember where you left them.
  • Design the overland map areas with the idea that you'll go there once, do the ENTIRE MAP, and be DONE.  If you MUST return to a map, make it a NEW VERSION of that map with SIGNIFICANT CHANGES.  Backtracking sucks.
  • Enough with the eternal wandering mooks.  It was cool in the Hinterlands where if you cleared out the Mages and Templars, there wouldn't be wandering Mages and Templars.  That was neat.  But you replaced them with bandits and lyrium smugglers.  Let us CLEAR the map, as in NO MORE HOSTILE RANDOM WANDERING CRAP.  This actually makes it feel like you've made progress and accomplished something.  You can fill the map with wandering stuff still, just make it NON-HOSTILE (or not hostile by default, but you still CAN fight it).
  • Make the skill trees bigger and more interesting, with actual trade-offs and options.  This is an RPG.  Act like one. Ideally the companions would have their own unique trees so that different possible player builds would rely on multiple playthroughs.  It feels like you've played every class out by the time you've finished the other Dragon Age games.  Also, have a much larger variety of active vs. passive/reactive abilities.  A party-based game where you have to control multiple characters should not be built around highly-active abilities that require you to carefully monitor ONE character in order to use them effectively.
  • PUT. ALL. FOUR. COMPANION. HOT. BARS. ON. SCREEN. AT. ONCE.  This crap where you had to switch characters to command a character to do something?  Yeah, that was fine in 1998 when nobody had any clue how to design a damn interface.  Oh, that might be problematic for people who want to use a controller?  Fine.  Make THEM switch characters.  Design a damn PC interface for the PC.
  • If you're going to have jumping and falling damage, make the non-controlled characters immune to falling damage. Nothing dumber than you going around a hill only to have your idiot companions path OVER the hill and lose half their health as they dive face-first into a ditch for no reason.
  • For crafting: don't tie stats to armor appearance, particularly if there's a very limited number of appearances to choose from.  It's offensive to discover that the only armor you like is too low-level to use effectively later in the game or has a stat loadout that's useless for your build.
Story Features
  • Have a damn intro to the game.  Apparently you think having six intros for Dragon Age: Origins absolves you of doing them for subsequent games.  It does not.  And if there's a huge damn explosion to kick things off, DO NOT HAVE IT HAPPEN OFFSCREEN.  There are options between "have a leisurely beginning that takes eight hours to play through" and "plop here's your family, care about them, we're gonna kill one in the next 30 seconds so be prepared to emote" or "we killed a ton of people you've never seen or met before you even got here".
  • Don't give the protagonist a supernatural power as the reason why they're the protagonist.  You done did that.  A lot.  As an occasional thing it can be okay, but you've done it too much.
  • Remember those "Meanwhile in Denerim" scenes from Dragon Age: Origins?  Either bring those back or have times we TALK to the antagonist(s) without just posturing and making threats.  If you have character interactions that are important and require the player to choose sides, introduce the sides EARLY, CHARACTERIZE them.  Don't just let us talk to them for 3 minutes.  Let us talk to OTHER PEOPLE about them (and NOT just companions).  Set us up with *expectations* long before they show up.  Then you can actually do something INTERESTING like trope subversion or betrayal.  You can't DO that if you don't set things up in advance, so you just get boring scenes where there's no choice but to just take everything at face value.
  • USE THE VOICE.  The primary value of a voiced protagonist vs. an unvoiced protagonist is that an unvoiced protagonist is always primarily an outsider, an observer, while the voiced protagonist can inhabit the world that they're in.  They can know things.  They can deliver exposition instead of having to get it all via info-dumps from third parties.  They can be COMPETENT instead of having to always ask other people what to do and to explain what's going on and what's the next step and give me a quest please!  USE that feature.  This also makes it a lot easier to make the protagonist The Leader without giving them a superpower!
  • For the love of gravy don't kill the protagonist and bring them back to life in the first 30 minutes of the game.  I mean, this really SHOULD go without saying because this is IDIOTIC, but you've done it in TWO games now (Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect: Andromeda) so clearly someone thinks this is cool  It's not.  It's stupid.  If you MUST have the protagonist come back from the dead, the time to do this is between Act 2 and Act 3 as in Jade Empire.  And don't give the protagonist amnesia for no good reason.  You've been rapidly and deservedly losing your reputation for good writing.  Stretch yourselves a bit and you might regain some of it.
  • Don't have arbitrary either-or alternatives.  Let us at least TRY to have everything, even if it's a disaster.  Especially if it's a disaster.  Also, "A Plague on Both Your Houses" is a fun option, too, and enormously under-used.
  • Bigger companion stories are an absolute must.  I don't know if the game is going to be much LIKE Inquisition, but if so, each companion should be tied to the "main plot" in a given overland map.  For an example, take the Emerald Graves.  The main area plot was the conflict between Fairbanks's refugees and the Freemen of the Dales.  SO, one of the companions should KNOW Fairbanks and have at least a little history with him, to pull you into this story.  You could even go so far as to have that same companion have history with the Freemen of the Dales, or a different companion.  This will make these area plots a LOT more interesting, nudge you toward bringing specific companions to the area (although you don't have to), and also flesh out the companions a lot.  It'll also make it easier to design cool areas if you're working from a particular character motif.
That's the basics, anyway.  I could come up with a billion ideas for wild-ass features and so forth, but in general I quite enjoyed Inquisition.  I wish it was much, much better, sure, but I think it's possible to make a good game from the *framework* that was there in Inquisition, instead of having to completely re-create all the game features and how they work together yet again, thus not leaving much time for actually MAKING A GOOD GAME.

Oct 27, 2018

The Incredibles 2

So, for my birthday yesterday I finally got around to watching The Incredibles 2.  Normally, I would have watched it a lot sooner, or even gone to see it in the theater because I generally love Pixar movies.  One of the things that I usually love about Pixar movies is that they are almost never about what I think they're going to be about.  This one was no exception.

The reason why I didn't bother to see this one in the theater is that I saw a lot of mixed reactions claiming that the movie was "a mess" or "just dumb action" or "incoherent".  No one seemed capable of identifying a central premise or theme for the movie, and a lot of people seemed disappointed.

Well, boy, did they ever miss the boat.  This movie is just as tight as The Incredibles, and, in fact, it even forms a perfect symmetry with the first movie, illustrating both halves of a false dichotomy and maintaining a consistent theme between both movies, showing what is ultimately the same theme from different angles.  This is an incredibly rare, almost unheard-of thing for a sequel to do.  Heck, nowadays it's pretty rare for a single, stand-alone movie to have a coherent, identifiable theme that's more complex than "defeat the bad guys".

So, what is the theme?  Why did everyone think that the movie is "a mess" or "incoherent"?

The theme of BOTH movies, articulated, is, "supers are just people".  That's it.  So simple.  Everything in BOTH movies adds up to this, but taken from different angles.

In The Incredibles, superpowers are largely viewed as a bad thing, even shameful, that has to be hidden.  The movie follows a family of superheroes who are in hiding.  They can't be themselves, and they're struggling, depressed, and unhappy because of it.  But, if you look closer, at the type of problems they have, they are just people problems.  Job dissatisfaction.  Trying to keep your family functioning when they're all pulling different directions.  Growing up.  Dating.  Family squabbles.  These are all regular-people problems.  Heck, even when the villain is attacking the city with giant robots, the regular-people problems still take center stage.

In The Incredibles 2, it's the same overall theme, just a new set of problems and a new villain.  The villain, while an emergency situation that does need to be dealt with, is not the centerpiece of the movie.  The family stuff is the center of the movie.  The personal problems.  The stuff of daily life.

This is the inverse of your typical superhero movie, in which the point is, ultimately, always to rise to the challenge of defeating the villain, often at the cost of throwing aside or even rejecting daily life.  It's interesting that in most superhero stories, this manages to (somehow) conveniently wrap up the daily life issues.  Would that work in real life?  Not so much.  "Dropping everything" to go haring off on a mad adventure doesn't pay the bills, and there isn't usually a nice pot of gold at the end of the rainbow to conveniently solve all of your problems.  In the universe of The Incredibles, the real challenge is to confront and surmount the difficulties of daily life.  Only when this is accomplished can the family come together (with friends and allies) to defeat the villain.

The villains in both movies are examples of rejecting the idea that supers are just people.  Both villains commit atrocities trying to one-up supers: Syndrome because he wants to drag supers down, Screenslaver because she thinks that supers are HOLDING everyone ELSE down.  Both of these views are wrong, in the same way and for the same reason.  Supers are just people.

What ultimately makes you a hero or a villain isn't the power you happen to have.  It's the choices you make.

Feb 14, 2018

DDO Forum Signature

I made a fun little signature for myself for the DDO forums:



It looks a little weird because it has a transparent background with a black matte so that it looks good on a dark forum background.

Feb 9, 2018

Game Design: RPG Economy

So, thought experiment time. How would you go about building a "global economy" in an RPG? I don't mean the typical ridiculous RPG economy where vendors will buy your endless piles of filthy gear over and over for the same price until you could literally buy the entire country with your pocket change. I'm talking the kind of economy where prices fluctuate based on supply and demand. Where there IS "supply and demand".
So, first thing would be just to list out supplies. Have a background process that lists all supplies available in an area and can increment them as new supplies are generated or decrement them as supplies are used. So, in Town X on Day 1 there are 53 healing potions. The town produces 1d3 healing potions per day and uses 1d6 (or whatever numbers you like--you can have them change due to various events etc.) Whatever store(s) sell those potions have, as sales stock, some percentage of the total potion count. So, if there are 72 local potions, the Potion Store stocks, say, 20% of them for sale. (If the player buys the current sale potions out, it re-stocks the next day at the new level. So you could EVENTUALLY buy a place mostly out of potions, but it would take several days--assuming the production vs. use numbers aren't high enough that there remains at least one potion for sale. And use doesn't by any means need to be generally higher than production, in fact, it'd make sense for most places to have slightly higher overall production than use for most goods.
So, you've got basic numbers for generating supply and demand for your locality. Ideally, you'd want to use some kind of sensible numbers, so if there are, say, a lot of farms or gardens locally that produce Potion Ingredients, the production number would be high. The use should be based off population and events. You could write a whole algorithm to generate these numbers automatically, even, by counting all the production nodes in the zone and the people, so your production and population can change dynamically. It's arithmetic, it ain't like computers are BAD at that crap. You can add any bells and whistles you like to this calculation. Maybe guards use more potions, so if there are a lot more guards in this town than usual, the usage is going to go up. Maybe you have a "combinator" calculation in there, so if the town produces 10 wheat (health potion ingredient A) but only 5 mushrooms (health potion ingredient B), that only counts as 5 "potion" nodes. Have a whole formula for determining how many ingredient nodes are assigned to which goods.
Heck, have a dynamic algorithm where if there's a glut in potions and a shortage of pies, all the nodes are calculated toward pie production instead of potion production so pie production temporarily increases but potion production temporarily decreases. Likewise, in a glut, usage increases. Have a "theft" stat and a "damage" stat that decreases production if things are stolen or damaged. Have this increase if the player goes around looting farms and gardens for ingredients or setting them on fire. (This should also be STEALING.) Knock yourself out. There's a limit to the value of this degree of simulation, though, especially when it's only casually witnessed by the player and not terribly transparent. Their only access to this information should be by observing the prices and MAYBE hearing some canned dialog complaining about the potion shortage (although if you have a number of different "goods" types along the lines of Skyrim, this would probably exceed the total amount of other dialog in the game by QUITE A BIT). Besides, if the player is going to have opportunities to get cash by buying low and selling high, make them work for it.
Now you need to implement price change thresholds. To me, it'd make sense to divide these by your population (especially if you want the population to change dynamically at all). So, say, something like this: 0 potions = "desperation". +100% buy price.
less than 3 potions per person = "shortage" +25% buy price, +50% sale price.
3-5 potions per person = "standard". Standard buy and sell prices.
more than 5 potions per person = "glut" -50% buy price, -25% sale price.
More than 8 potions per person = "saturation", -75% buy price, -100% sale price. That's right, the vendors won't give you money for them AT ALL.
The last note is that if you really want this to be interesting, your "cash" needs to be treated as a good like any other. It needs to have a supply rate and a usage rate, gluts and shortages. However, it should probably not be possible to hit 100% saturation with cash. Or, you could just make it that any good with a "luxury" tag, can never hit 100% saturation, so cash, jewelry, high-level weapons and armor, rare books, delicious food, rare wines, etc. However, luxury goods should also have a very low "glut" threshold--or even ALWAYS be considered in "glut", since you don't "need" them. They're luxuries. Use your imagination. However, this is where things start to get a little bit complicated because, of course, if the value of cash can change, that's going to affect ALL OTHER prices. So the actual price of buying any good (with cash) is going to be modified by TWO effects.
Personally, I'd say (particularly if you're doing an RPG and not a full blown trading sim) that you should calculate the cash value and availability in such a way as to grief the player pretty severely. Games already do this sort of thing with the typical "vendors sell at full value and buy at half value" thing. Hey, they gotta make a profit--and by any measure all that stuff you took off of dead bodies that you BLEW UP AND/OR HACKED TO BITS then shoved in your greasy backpack for a month to rattle around with PIES AND DEAD FISH should be in TERRIBLE condition. Any "rural" location should have a VERY low glut threshold for cash. And cities should have enormous invisible banks of cash that isn't normally available but keeps cash prices pretty stable. Plus, that would open the possibility for the player to (literally) rob a bank. You probably also want to divorce "quest rewards" from the economy calculations. So if the players screw up and go broke (or break the economy in some hilarious way), they can always go quest while things even themselves out.
That's the basic outline, but of course you can go much, much further. You can have traders who act to equalize goods levels across different economic zones, like this: Trader Joe walks between Capital City and Port City. When Trader Joe is in Capital City, a calculation runs that determines what good(s) have the greatest price difference per unit between Capital City and Port City. Trader Joe acquires a supply of those goods and takes them to Port City, where he runs the same calculation in reverse. Over time, the traders would act to level out the supply levels between those places. You don't have to have Trader Joe ACTUALLY "buy" and "sell" the goods, just "transport" them from place to place. You could even just run this as calculation and not have real "Traders" at all, but personally I'd think it would be more fun. Plus, again, your player can always attack the traders on the road and steal all their stuff. Or, on the other hand, the player can buy a store, stock it, "hire" someone to operate it and "hire" traders. So, is this sort of thing worth the trouble? That depends on what you're doing, of course, but systems like these do one thing really well--they help maintain interest in playing. Players generally break the economy in an RPG pretty quickly--they can buy not just everything they need, but anything they want. Only there's no point, because they don't need it and there's no benefit to having 3x as many healing potions as you could ever use instead of just 2x as many healing potions as you could ever use. An economy that actually functions dynamically can stave this off for a much longer time while simultaneously adding a whole level of emergent gameplay options. I also think that if you really wanted to go hardcore RPG Economy Sim, you could theoretically create an MMORPG where the economy basically IS the game. Although maybe that's more interesting as a thought experiment than as an actual game.