I Was On A Podcast!

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I personally really think the watermark makes this image.

I mean, I used to run a podcast when I was like 14, but I’m not talking about that.

I recently guest appeared on the Game Crunch Podcast, which is a super-cool podcast run by a super-cool bunch of dudes. We talked about an assortment of games, including an amazing/terrible grindhouse vaguely porn-y beat-’em-up on Steam called Bad Ass Babes, Stellaris, and The Witcher! We also chatted about the Mystery Enigma Box that is the Nintendo NX, the Digital Homicide lawsuits, and I made a bunch of pistol noises with my mouth and generally made a fool of myself.

Big thanks to Mike, Nick, and Brandon for having me on. They’re great guys with a great ‘cast, and they deserve your sub. I hope they make the mistake of having me back on another time.

On a more dour note, sorry about the lack of updates! School’s really kicked into gear, and I’ve been wanting for time to both write posts and to play games to write posts about as a result. Once I get back on top of my schedule, I should be back to my normal schedule.

But, yeah, in the meanwhile, if you wanna hear my supple voice, check out Ep. 171 of the Game Crunch Podcast. It’s also available on iTunes or Stitcher!

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Writing A Story For An Existing Canon

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First: Make sure to pack the papers together, so that they fire as a single projectile instead of just scattering everywhere

Whenever existing franchises have their debut in the world of video games, the matter of story is often an interesting one. People love the stories in their favorite books, movies, and shows, so when those books, movies, and shows become games, writers have an awkward balance to strike between giving fans what they want and keeping them from getting bored.

I’ve noticed that, generally speaking, whenever a series needs to be adapted for a game, there are basically three core strategies that can be used:

Strategy #1: Throw Canon, and Chronology, In The Dumpster

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The most recent game to use this strategy is also the game that inspired this post: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Eyes of Heaven. Promising a story set in the long-running JJBA franchise, Eyes of Heaven delivers a Jojo’s story by taking anything remotely resembling chronology and throwing it into a dumpster before lighting the whole thing on fire and, presumably, posing.

Thanks to the narrative trope of “time travel, alternate universe bullshit”, Eyes of Heaven gets to simultaneously connect to every single part of the series at its most interesting. Noteworthy characters who died (multiple times, in some cases) come back for basically no reason. Old and young versions of the same character fight side by side, as do characters who are technically the same person in two different parallel universes.

This kind of story is sort of the Greatest Hits album of a series: all of the best moments, without a shred of context or framing. You just get to see all of your favorite cool guys do a bunch of cool stuff, but no one’s going to say the story is emotionally engaging or even meaningful. It’s essentially just a montage. Ultimately, this kind of game is extremely appealing as a massive “What If?” simulator for hardcore fans, but people new to the franchise are going to be utterly lost, if not repulsed entirely.

Strategy #2: The Same, But More

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A strategy I feel like was more popular in the 90s and 2000s, this strategy basically involves remaining as faithful to the source material as possible, while adding content that extends the lifespan of the game, while not significantly modifying the story. Obviously, this was more common in the eras where it was commonplace for studios to poop out a crappy tie-in game with every big-budget movie.

The benefits of this strategy are obvious: your writing work is reduced immensely. Basically, rummage up the original manuscript or screenplay, Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V, done. Your level designers get the basic structure and order of the levels handed right to them, and your artists have mountains of reference material to go off of. Basically, all you have to do is extrapolate on the contents of the original work to get that bonus material. If your characters know each other before the start of the original work, cover that origin story in your game. Everywhere the camera cuts from one action scene to another, cover the in-between in the game.

Of course, this is a double-edged sword. Your project has expectations to meet in the minds of people familiar with the project. You need to hit the right story beats, show the right places, show the right events happening in the right way, and you need to strike the same mood and tone. If you don’t, your game isn’t faithful, and you’re going to make fans mad, and you’re going to create tension as people who know the story through your game struggle to communicate with people who know the story through the original. That’s not what you want, you want a project of this nature to harmonize with the original work, to bring in new fans cleanly, and to expand the experience of new players.

Strategy #3: A New Entry Entirely

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Sometimes, games come out that have the gall to simply declare themselves a part of a series as important as the founding works. I think that Ghostbusters: The Video Game is one of the most interesting renditions of this idea: it just stood next to two of the most beloved comedy movies of all time and said “Yeah, I’m the sequel”.

This is really the dream of all of the fans on your team, which is hopefully everyone on your team. You get to produce a brand new work using this series or work that you already love, creating a new project, a new entry. It’s the dream of every fan, because you basically get to work side-by-side with the original creator, even if not concurrently.

The down side, however, is obvious, especially to anyone who’s read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: you have a standard that you have to meet. Instead of with Strategy 2, where you have a fairly tangible set of requirements your adaptation has to meet (Harry needs to have a scar, Hogwarts is in Britain, etc.), now you have this much more ambiguous requirement that you meet the level of quality of the original works, and that you be “true” to the original works. Existing characters need to act like the original writer would have them act, and new characters need to feel like they belong, and the same goes for everything else. All of a sudden, you have a pedigree to match.

No matter what strategy you implement, your goals for adapting an old canon into a game are basically the same two, which are what I’m going to leave you with:

  1. Celebrate the original work, and revel in the things that make people like it
  2. Allow people to enjoy the original work in a new and interesting way

 

The Ur-Game

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I’ve noticed a trend among people in the tabletop RPG scene to describe all games as though they derive from Dungeons and Dragons. New games are described in the ways they alter the Dungeons and Dragons formula, and decidedly non-Dungeons and Dragons traits of games are considered oddities. For example, a member of my gaming group, who basically has only played D&D, looked confused when I explained that the new system we would be playing tonight required you to roll below a target number, instead of above, before finally remarking “Oh, it’s one of those games”.

Yes, Dungeons and Dragons was the first known tabletop role-playing game, and thus, in a historical sense, calling D&D the source of all games is right. However, much in the same way most modern movies don’t look much like The Story of the Kelly Gang, the first feature-length movie, plenty of modern RPGs don’t look much like Dungeons and Dragons. There are dice and skills and classes, the same way most movies have shots and cuts and soundtracks, but they manifest in extremely different ways. Like any other designer or director, the creators of these projects made decisions to fit to their vision, but since they were the first, some of these decisions have been codified as “fact”.

There is an ur-game, though, one which sits at the center of all role-playing game design. In fact, here are the rules, printed in all their glory:

The Ur-Game

Whenever a character performs a task that they have a reasonable chance of failing at, flip a coin. Heads, they succeed. Tails, they fail.

That’s it. That’s the game.

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That’s nine rules fewer than God gave to Moses, and seven rules fewer than Fight Club.

All role-playing games can have their design carved away until they reach this essential, core game. Every action, no matter who’s doing it or what it is, fifty-fifty. Every game simply exists as a series of layers of complexity placed over this basic game.

It can be hard to recognize, but that’s really all it is. Layer after layer of mechanics are added to this game, and after a certain point, they start modifying each other, instead of just that core game, until the final product is almost unidentifiable from the original game.

The first, and most core, modifications most games make to the Ur-Game is to play with that probability curve. Maybe you don’t want characters to succeed half of the time. No problem. Just make it so that the result that indicates “success” comes up the amount you want. Obviously, a single coin isn’t really going to provide that much probabilistic flexibility, so switch to a die, and denote a number of spaces on the die “success” such that the probability is to your liking. Want a 12.5% success rate? That’s…oddly specific, but switch the coin to a d8, and say the character only succeeds upon rolling an 8.

If no die can achieve the precise probability you’re looking for, then you’ll probably want multiple dice instead. Multiple dice also grant you an uneven probability curve, unlike that provided by a single die. Of course, that only counts if you’re adding the die results together. If you’re treating them each as an individual success or failure, the whole thing gets flipped on its head, even though it doesn’t: each of those dice is still a single instance of the Ur-Game, you’re just making players play several games of it concurrently.

Do you see how this spirals rapidly into complexity? I bet there’s a way to control this spiral, by making a series of single, thought-out alterations to the Ur-Game, just like a sculptor making an intricate sculpture by making single, thought-out strikes to a block of marble. Take the Ur-Game, then make a single change, a thoughtful change. Turn the coin into a different random number generator. Make it multiple coins. Whatever. Keep doing that, keep making single changes, until you’ve created that sculpture.

Why am I recommending this? After all, it doesn’t seem like to amazing a revelation, hardly something to shout from the hills. But too often, amateur RPG designers start by taking a mechanic they already know and like and making modifications on it until it resembles a mechanic they want, but this is like trying to carve an old sculpture into a new one: you’re going to end up destroying some integral parts on accident, tacking on new parts where there were never intended to be any, and you’ll never be able to shake the resemblance to your origin point.

By starting with a blank canvas, a single block of marble, the Ur-Game, you’re starting at square one, and instead of finding yourself trapped by the limitations of another mechanic that you are modifying, you’ll be free to explore the entire possibility space of your design instead, using other games as reference, not as your foundation.

 

Achievements as a Force For Good

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“Is it my turn to talk? Alright cool. H…hi, everyone, my name’s Michael, and I’m a reformed achievement addict.”

Achievement addicts, or as they’re sometimes pejoratively known, “score-whores”, are people who obsessively seek out achievements in games, usually on the Xbox line of consoles. Some people who had it way worse than me would buy crappy games purely on the knowledge that they offered easy achievements.

For me, it wasn’t like that, though. Generally speaking, I only played the games I wanted to play, with the exception of some free advergames (I show my relatively high Doritos Crash Course score in shame, although that game kinda wasn’t awful). For me, getting achievements was a way to show mastery of a game, to show appreciation. It was a measure of how much of that game I had truly explored.

I’ve since broken out of my achievement hunting habit, thanks to two reasons. One, I started playing on consoles with, frankly, worse achievement architectures, such as my PS4, as well as on Steam. Two, I realized that most achievement lists were poorly designed, and did not comprise a full representation of a game’s contents, and thus, their value to me decreased.

Looking back over my achievement list, I have quite a few regrets. Grinding out the multiplayer in Bioshock 2 and Red Faction Guerilla was maddening. Looking at the achievement lists for the first 3 Gears of War games still gives me haunting flashbacks. But there were other games whose achievements actually probably led to me having more fun.

Take, for example, “The One Free Bullet” from Half Life 2: Episode 1. This achievement required you to beat the entire episode using only a single bullet, which had to be used to unlock a gate near the beginning of the game. This forces you to play the entire game using the Gravity Gun, the crowbar, and explosives, which is actually quite a bit of fun. And while carrying that little garden gnome around Half Life 2: Episode 2 was terrible, give me a bit more of a robust inventory system, and three friends, and I had a blast doing the exact same thing for “Guardin’ Gnome” in Left 4 Dead 2.

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Probably because that game lets you bludgeon zombies to death with the gnome.

In fact, looking over my achievements, all the ones I really look back at with fondness are the ones that forced me, or at least encouraged me, to mix up my playstyles. Looking over the Fallout: New Vegas achievements reminds me how a subset of those achievements inspired me to play my favorite character: Carl, the brutish Legionnaire who liked hitting stuff with clubs and gambling. Halo 3 ODST was a lot more fun on Legendary, I mode I normally never play, but did for the achievement. Trying to engineer situations for “Flippin’ Crazy” and “Global Impact” in Crackdown had me maximizing all of those games’ systems.

This, I think, is the real power of achievements. By simply existing, they can imply a way of playing the game that isn’t obvious in the game, and serve as a nice way of signposting these strategies without having something extremely obvious in the game (“Try killing those guys without shooting!” a random NPC screams). Since they’re not in the game, players don’t miss out on mechanical benefits for not doing them, they’re just little suggestions, little nudges towards an idea.