The Switcharoo: Impressions on the Nintendo Switch

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Really switchin’ things up around here. Just really having a switch of thinking. The thought to write this was like a light switch going off in my head. Switch.

So, last night marked the most informative press conference we’ve gotten about Nintendo’s new console, the Switch. Designed to be a hybrid of home console gaming and mobile gaming, as well as featuring a laser focus on local multiplayer, the Switch is nothing if not a pretty unique piece of hardware. If you don’t already know the full specs of the Switch, there are far better write ups than I could provide, but here are the CliffsNotes:

  • The “console” that plugs into your TV contains within it a tablet which can be removed and taken on the go.
  • The two side pieces of that controller above, the pieces stylized in the logo (called joycons), can be played in the above configuration, slid off to function in a manner resembling a Wiimote and Nunchuck, used as two seperate controllers, or slid onto the sides of the tablet to form a Wii U-esqe controller.
  • Games are back to coming as cartridges, probably for easier on-the-go handling

So, as a designer, I think my biggest fear in regards to the Switch is actually the price point on the peripherals. Just one joycon costs fifty dollars, and a set of two of them as a bundle costs eighty. Throw in the controller mount, and the total goes up to $110. As a reference point, that’s:

So, the peripherals are expensive, so what? My point is that expensive peripherals, obviously, raise the barrier of entry to get said peripherals, and thus reduce the number of people who have them. As a developer, you’re not going to be able to reliably assume people have 4 joycons lying around, at least not as well as you could if they were, say, thirty bucks. You can only assume people have what comes standard with the console.

If you’re getting some deja vu here, this is because I’m framing this in a way to parallel another recent peripheral:

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The Kinect for the Xbox One was another innovative controller at a relatively high price (it currently runs for a hundred bucks). When the Xbox One launched, one of the promises was a Kinect in every box standard, meaning developers could reliably make Kinect games knowing that the base market they were pursuing was 100% of Xbox One owners, the same as any other Xbox One game. However, in search of ways to cut sticker price, Microsoft decided to go back on packing in Kinects, returning them to a paid accessory, and the Kinect ecosystem responded by immediately dying. As it turns out, people usually aren’t stoked to spend an extra hundred bucks when they just bought a three hundred dollar console, and still need to buy some games, so no one bought Kinects, and thus, the value proposition on developing for the Kinect got way worse. Flash forward to 2016, and two Kinect games came out all year.

While their reasoning is different, I think Nintendo is marching towards a similar fate here. Having just dropped three bills on a Switch, plus probably at least sixty bucks more for a game, people aren’t going to then spend another hundred bucks to get another controller, especially not when the games that need them are, while not necessarily bad, definitely not strong enough to push hardware sales. Do you think people are going to buy peripherals for a Bomberman game in 2016? Do you think people are going to spend a hundred bucks to play Arms with a friend? Really?

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DISCLAIMER: I actually think Arms looks rad as hell, but I’m not spending $170 to play it with a friend

I guess the hope is that you and your friends will all have your own Switches, and thus can just bring your controllers around to friends’ houses to play, but then the problem becomes that the current lineup is so paltry that the gamble of getting multiple people to buy a Switch to complete the console experience for any one of those people is silly. Plus, what if people wanna try yours before they buy their own? What about showing family? What if you just wanna play with different friends than the ones who own Switches?

I want the Switch to succeed, and with a few more games lined up that are to my tastes, I’ll probably end up getting one myself. My problem is that I think Nintendo is trying to hype up this “ideal” experience with the console that relies on the faulty assumption that people are going to drop hundreds of dollars for the peripherals of this thing, and when that assumption fails to come to light, you’re going to end up with a console that largely has some of its most interesting features largely underutilized by the general public.

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Rip And Tear: How To Make Very Smart Stupid Things

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At the risk of parroting basically every major games publication this year, DOOM is a very, very good video game. I only just recently started playing it since I got it for Christmas, despite the game having come out last May, and I’m honestly blown away by how good it is. Every second of the game feels good to play, and the genuine feeling of ramping difficulty combined with the fantastic feedback loop of the combat just keeps me craving more.

DOOM ties in to a recent trend I’ve seen across media lately, and that’s a trend I’ll hastily call “Very Well Done Stupid Things”. This genre comprises games that seek little more than visceral, action-focused thrills, but do so with a level of craftsmanship befitting of more “high brow” pieces. This is a category I’d fill with movies like Mad Max: Fury RoadDredd, and Kingsmen: The Secret Service, and DOOM‘s game contemporaries in the genre might be BayonettaMetal Gear Rising: Revengeance, and Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon.

To clarify, this does not mean that these pieces of media cannot contain commentary on greater topics (Kingsmen is a deconstruction of the spy genre, and Fury Road certainly has something to say about feminism), but these topics require some deep reading to find, and the initial impression has less to do with those topics and way more to do with “Oh my god, this is ridiculous”.

I think the first essential key to such an experience is knowing what you’re making. One of the things that distinguishes a movie like Mad Max: Fury Road from, say, a Michael Bay Transformers joint is that George Miller fundamentally understood that what he was making was a movie about cool dudes in leather driving cool junker cars across the desert and shooting each other. A precious minimum of minutes of Fury Road are spent doing things that aren’t driving or shooting, basically the exact minimum needed to push the plot forward. While Michael Bay might say that he knows he’s making “exploding robot car movies for teenage boys”, the amount of time in each Transformers movie spent detailing the (boring) human characters, or reciting (forgettable) lore proves that this sentiment has been lost somewhere in the filmmaking process.

The next essential key is, in fact, an essential key to most storytelling media in general, from games to movies to books: every element of the piece needs to be expertly designed to drive the central focus. DOOM is a strong example of this. DOOM‘s central thesis is thus: move and shoot, or die. Thus, every single mechanic and room in the game is designed to be conducive towards moving and shooting. Traditional cover systems or “Wait long enough while not being shot to recover your health” systems are forsaken in favor of a system by which you weaken enemies (by shooting them) then melee execute them (by moving to them) to get a bounty of health pickups, meaning the best way to survive a fight is to remain in the middle of it for as long as possible.

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The glory kills are also a great source of going “AH GOD JESUS”

When you’re developing a game for pure, visceral joy, you need to make sure that everything in your game ties directly into that. Otherwise, the parts that do not, like DOOM‘s codex entries or Metal Gear Rising‘s walk-and-talk sections, will stick out like a sore thumb against the rest of the game. This certainly isn’t to say that you can’t include dialogue or lore in your game, but do so in a way that acknowledges that players might certainly not care at all, and want to return immediately to the bloodshed.

Finally, I think the last necessary component to make a “good dumb” game or film is an understanding of tone. You have already recognized that you’re making a silly thing, so any attempts at evoking real emotion should be done with the fact that they are going to be framed by ridiculous ultraviolence in mind. Mad Max‘s poignant moments have some good buffer space of quieter scenes leading up to them, ensuring the transition isn’t jarring.

This isn’t to say your game needs to be all jokey and comedy.  Get too jokey, and you drive full steam into Duke Nukem territory, with every moment tainted by jokes that feel like they were just there to make the writers laugh (not to mention the simple fact that a lot of dialogue tends to repeat in video games, leading to groan-inducing repetition). Again, take DOOM as a strong positive example. There are no jokes in DOOM, no one quips, there’s no pithy one-liners or references. Yet, the game is funny by the pure nature of how serious it is, how absolutely self-important it presents itself, while still knowing deep down how ferociously stupid it is at a conceptual level.

“Low brow” does not mean bad. Quite a few of my favorite films, shows, and games in recent memory have been in the pursuit of cheap thrills and dumb violence. However, shallow narrative meaning is no excuse for bad craftsmanship, and just like any other genre, what separates true legends in this genre from the dollar a dozen crap is a real attention to detail.

The League of Extraordinary Roleplayers: From Swamps To Superheroes

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This post is going to be a touch unique, because I want to share an idea for a tabletop RPG campaign that I’ve had bouncing around in my head, and maybe try to figure out exactly what about it I find so interesting.

The origin of the idea comes from a concept called the West Marches, a game run and then detailed by designer Ben Robbins. His detailed (and very good) writeup can be found here, but the summary of it is that the West Marches was a campaign designed to be extremely resilient to group volatility: that is, the availability of the players and the GM(s). The West Marches followed a cast of characters exploring and venturing out into the eponymous Marches, a hostile, dangerous region at the edge of the civilized world. Players explored, mapped out, and became familiar with this one, well-defined region, which would change and grow and respond to the player’s actions over time.

The benefits of such a campaign were many. Since there was no real overarching plot, simply exploration-focused ventures out into the wilderness, players could opt in and out of sessions as their schedule permitted, without worry of disrupting the story. Constant retreading of similar in-game ground not only helped players feel like real explorers, as their discoveries were constant, and provided information that could be reused as parties explored familiar ground, but also eased the work of the GM, as prep done for a given area could be reused, or grown upon, as players return to the same area over and over. Having this single, constant environment grow and evolve in response to the players, and having players develop a familiarity with the environment and how it works, ended up creating a real living, breathing, world.

So, this was rolling around in the back of my head, about a month ago I was on the RPG subreddit when I happened across this post, in which a GM was getting public opinion about what they should run that would be resilient towards a setting in which players would drop-in and drop-out at random intervals. In the top comment was a single line which suddenly sparked a wave of creativity in my head:

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What a good goddamn idea, I thought.

And thus, the gears started spinning. Almost all superhero media, from comics to TV series all the way up to the Marvel Cinematic Universe are episodic in one way or another: while elements from previous stories might be worked in to new stories as payoff for long-time fans, almost every piece of media is either self-contained or inside of a small arc, making the format a natural fit. Each session could be a self-contained story in which a subset of this larger superhero team takes on the villain of the week. Villains could pop up repeatedly, establishing themselves as central figures in the world, and allowing them to develop relationships with certain player characters (similar to the way Batman and the Joker, and Superman and Lex Luthor, have special relationships, despite the fact that Batman and Superman face other villains, and the Joker and Lex other heroes). Setting the game in one metropolitan area allows players to develop familiarity with the setting, and for the setting to respond to player actions (read: destruction).

The benefit a superhero game has over a fantasy game such as West Marches, I think, is that the genre allows room for a disparity of both tone and scale. Say, for example, I’m running Marvel Cinematic Universe: the Campaign for my group. If, one day, I have my Daredevil, Luke Cage, and Captain America players as a party, I have a chance to tell a much more down-to-Earth, street-level story in which my party is dealing with thugs, criminals, and gangsters in the grittiest parts of the city, and to tell really human stories about real people dealing with real problems: addiction, corruption, and community become themes within striking distance.

Say next week rolls around, and while last week’s party find themselves busy, this week I have a new crop of players, playing Doctor Strange, Thor, and Hulk. Well, now, within the same setting, I can now tell a story on a grand scale, of gods and magic and parallel worlds and of cataclysmic stakes. This game is now dealing with battles for the fate of all humanity, and themes of the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few, of courage in the face of impossible odds and of dealing with the unknown. This is the same game in the same world as last week, just on a much larger scale. Much like the real world, such a game setting operates on a multitude of scales, each one having its own serious threats that, to people operating on that scale, seem earth-shatteringly important.

This is, of course, a bit of a double-edged sword for the GM. While such a game does open up room to tell all sorts of stories and to have all sorts of different kinds of adventures, it means you have to have prep ready to run a game on any part of the spectrum  of scale, so as to be prepared for any type of group to show up. Also, you need to be prepared for if, say, Daredevil, Luke Cage, Doctor Strange, and Thor all show up to the same session. You need to be ready to present something challenging enough that your stronger characters don’t plow right through it, but easy enough that your lower-power characters don’t feel impotent.

I think the solution to this, however, ties back to the strength of a campaign set up in this manner: player and character connection to the setting and the NPCs within it. In such a game, players will come to recognize and ultimately identify with parts of the city that they like. They’ll have NPCs that they come back to again and again for help, which they eventually will develop affinity for, and particularly nasty villains that come back again and again will be the subject of hatred and ire. As your players become more and more engrossed in this world, it will be easier to develop stories that can engage the entire group no matter the power level.

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Think of Captain America: Civil War, for example. That movie contained a pretty massive ensemble cast of characters, from characters like Vision and Scarlet Witch, who are honest-to-god superheroes with seemingly unbounded potential, to Hawkeye and Falcon, who are…some dudes in suits. There was potential for a few characters to seemingly dominate the story through sheer power, but this was ultimately mitigated by weaving the central conflict in with the interpersonal drama already established within the “campaign”.

By drawing on the relationships the characters had with one another, the stronger characters had greater incentive to “tone it down”, while the weaker characters had the intimate knowledge of their foes that allowed them to go toe-to-toe. Furthermore, the central conflict of Civil War played out on a few levels of scale, such that characters tended to square off against their closest equals instead of preying on the weaker or getting stomped by the stronger.

While my current Edge of the Empire group is still going very strong, I’m definitely going to keep this superhero idea on the backburner. I think as I grow older, and my responsibilities greater, the idea of having such a game that is so responsive to real-world schedules, while still remaining so potentially meaningful and offering such a variety of stories to tell, will only become more and more enticing.