The Switcharoo: Impressions on the Nintendo Switch

nintendoswitch_hardware-0-0
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:

kinect

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?

arms-game
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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Fallout 4 Isn’t As Good As I Hoped (But It’s Still Good!)

Immediately following this picture, Dogmeat ran three miles away and caught fire.
Immediately following this picture, Dogmeat ran three miles away and caught fire.

*sigh* I had a feeling.

Don’t get me wrong, Fallout 4 is still a fantastic game, and I can easily see myself dumping hundreds of hours into it in the future. But, I am strongly considering dropping it for the moment, and waiting for a few months before I pick it back up.

One reason isn’t really the game’s fault. My gaming PC is pretty old (geez, probably 7 years old by now). Fallout 4 does run, even on medium settings, which is frankly astounding, but there are some awkward lighting bugs, and the framerate really does chug in combat, so this game is definitely serving as the impetus for my inevitable upgrade.

Other reasons, however, aren’t the fault of my hardware. For starters, the AI in the game is just…oh boy. Never change, Bethesda, because I have had a good number of encounters permanently blemished in my mind even in just the first four hours due to some crap AI. Dogmeat really likes to block doorways, and just sort of frantically run off. Even more disappointing was that epic showdown in Concord where you’re in Power Armor and you’re fighting the Deathclaw. The Deathclaw got stuck in the ground for me, allowing me to just stand there and pump lead into him until he died, without a care in the world.

Speaking of that encounter, did you know that happens, like, an hour and a half in? It’s one of the first things that happens to you after you leave the Vault. And man, that scene sucks. For starters, as many people have said, getting Power Armor in a Fallout game is supposed to be this epic reward, the visible sign of your apotheosis from wasteland scum to post-apocalyptic warlord. One of the things I liked in New Vegas is that you can never find Power Armor in a playthrough pretty easily, and if you do find it, you’re already so attached to your current clothes that you kinda don’t want it.

Meanwhile, in Fallout 4, you get Power Armor immediately, and you have to get it. It feels like cheating. In Fallout 3, a similar thing occurred at Galaxy News Radio, with you being forced to pick up a Fat Man. The Fat Man, however, was wildly impractical except in specific scenarios (like the GNR fight), while Fallout 4‘s Power Armor is basically a solution for every combat scenario.

As it turns out, nuclear explosions aren't good solutions for anything closer than about 100 feet
As it turns out, nuclear explosions aren’t good solutions for anything closer than about 100 feet

Furthermore, the way you find out about the Power Armor is through the Minutemen, a group of wasteland Boy Scouts who you help get through a gunfight in an old museum, and they trust you immediately following that. After spending so much time to get New Vegas‘s Brotherhood of Steel to trust me, and how much time I spent climbing the ranks of the NCR, to have these guys instantly go “Yeah, I dunno, you’re a Minuteman now. Want Power Armor now?” is so unsatisfying. It doesn’t help that I was dressed like the guys that were just shooting at them.

So, they send you on the easiest fetch quest in the world, to go grab a power core in the same building, head to the roof of the same building, and go to the Vertiberd crash where a suit of perfect condition Power Armor is very neatly standing there, waiting for you, even positioned in the same direction you need to travel. It doesn’t feel like an organic part of the world, it feels like finding a weapon in an old school shooter like Doom, where there was just a gun on a pedestal, because fuck worldbuilding. It all feels so video-gamey, in a game series I value for its immersive quality.

I'm still kinda mad this moment was taken from me
I’m still kinda mad this moment was taken from me

And then, after all this, all of a sudden the game just throws you right into the settlement-building mechanics, as you help the Minutemen set up a nice, homey encampment. The problem is A) I still don’t nearly care enough about these guys to want to give them nice homes, and B) this is my neighborhood, assholes. As far as my cryogenically-frozen ass is concerned, all of my friends and family were living here, like 3 hours ago. And now you want me to stick my neck out collecting a massive amount of resources so that we can bulldoze my neighborhood to build some crappy hovel town. That’s messed up.

I’m not extremely far into the game (maybe about 6 hours), and despite all of this I definitely can tell I’m going to like Fallout 4. The gunplay is the best in the whole series, and is frankly pretty fun in general, not just in comparison. The crafting system is extremely interesting, and I think I’ve already spent an hour just chasing down raw materials to turn my crappy pipe pistol into a hand cannon. For every character that I find mediocre, like the Minutemen, I seem to find someone else who is fantastic, like the ever-chipper Codsworth, or Travis, the charmingly uncharismatic radio host of Diamond City Radio.

In general, then, my opinion of the game is good, and even though Bethesda main quests are always a little lacking, I find the hamfisted way that the game shoves key characters and new mechanics on you to utterly break my immersion. I want to explore, to work my way up to being able to use Power Armor and to control settlements, but instead the game just wants to dump all of this on my lap. Combine this with moments where I feel like the story just breaks (Why is my character so cool with seeing a Deathclaw for the first time? Why is he so unphased by the destruction of him family? When the hell did he pick up carpentry?), and Fallout 4 feels like it tried so hard to be a mechanical sandbox, it’s not letting me enjoy a narrative sandbox, where I can play a character in a world.

//I am aware that I am not even remotely close to having seen a majority slice of the game, but seeing as these moments represent my first impression of the game, and made up most of the marketing campaign, I still found it valid to comment upon. I’ll probably post again on my thoughts on the full game, and if my fears here are unfounded or not.

The Natural Next Step in CCGs

Abyssians fo' lyfe, suckas
Abyssians fo’ lyfe, suckas

Today I started playing a game called Duelyst from Counterplay Games. It plays like the lovechild of Hearthstone and a tactical RPG, where players control a general on a gridded battlefield. Using a steadily-increasing mana pool, players then summon creatures from their hand onto this battlefield, or cast spells in much the same way. These creatures and generals then move about the battlefield, and the game is won when you reduce the opponent general’s health to zero. It’s quite a good game, and I highly recommend it (it’s available for free here).

Duelyst also got me thinking about the nature of CCGs as a whole, though, especially in the wake of Hearthstone players seemingly becoming more and more irate of the state of the game. The time I spent with Hearthstone was like a summer fling: intense, but brief (I played for about four months, in a span of time that included the game’s formal release). I also used to play Magic: The Gathering for about a year (starting with Avacyn Restored and ending right at the release of Dragon’s Maze).

I love card games. I always have, ever since I got my first Pokemon cards as a kid. However, I always end up dropping them. I never had anyone to play Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh with as a kid. Magic has an abundance of players, including quite a few of my friends who still play, but I found that I hated the atmosphere of my local Friday Night Magic. Everyone wanted to win, and was playing top-of-the-line decks, whereas I was trying to create decks that were thematically strong, or created unusual and janky combos. I still had fun, but I felt like the amount of money I had to put into the game was too great to have my playstyle rendered utterly impotent, so I stopped.

Hearthstone suffered a few problems after that. I found the card pool simply not large enough to create the sorts of interesting and unusual combos I wanted to make. Furthermore, Hearthstone got crazy expensive to keep up with, and while I had the disposable income to fork up (quitting Magic freed up my ‘expensive hobby’ money), but it was then I realized that Hearthstone‘s design problems are more deeply rooted in its core design.

Not pictured: the hundreds of bucks all of these pirates had to fork over to have fun
Not pictured: the hundreds of bucks all of these pirates had to fork over to have fun

You see, the primary means of obtaining cards in both Hearthstone and Magic is the same: cracking randomized packs of cards. The difference, however, is that Magic has a used market. If you want specific cards, then you can just buy them from a guy, usually for a reasonable price (well, reasonable for a Magic player). Packs need to be cracked, obviously, to inject new cards into the ecosystem, but a thriving resale community ensures that you can always get exactly the card you need, exactly when you need it.

Hearthstone lacks such a function. It’s easy to write off this fact due to Hearthstone‘s digital-only nature, but if resale is possible in Steam’s trading card system, surely it is possible here. Instead, the only way to obtain exact cards in Hearthstone is by constructing it with Dust. How do you get Dust? By breaking down your other cards.

This turns out not to be an equivalent solution, however. Good cards cost quite a bit of dust, and so you can either burn dozens of crap cards to obtain the dust you need (which would require a sum of cards that would take forever to obtain without spending a lot of money on packs), or you can just break down a few rare cards.

Y’see the problem here? To get rare cards, you either need to crack packs and hope to get lucky and find what you need, or craft. But to craft, you need to crack a ton of packs, hoping to get lucky and find something expensive enough to fund your crafting. Or, you can just buy a ton of packs for pure crafting fodder, but that’s the same strategy you’d use when you just are trying to find a card in the packs.

As a result, there is only one way to get the cards you need in Hearthstone: cracking packs. And while gambling is fun, it’s not anything close to efficient, and it’s absolutely frustrating to crack a pack (that you potentially spent real money on), only to find garbage. Magic gets away with such a system, because Magic has a solid grasp of its format: it’s a physical object, and as a result, it can have a thriving resale market.

This gets to my main complaint about Hearthstone: it does not properly utilize the benefits of its format. Hearthstone is a digital game, and yet, it’s not completely impossible to envision Hearthstone as a physical card game sold in comic shops. With the exception of a few cards, which have cards capable of pulling cards out of thin air, all of Hearthstone‘s mechanics work in a physical format, which is a bummer to me.

I’ve always been an advocate of using the unique features of your medium to a maximum. Movies that don’t look good should be books. Songs that don’t sound good should be poems. Hearthstone doesn’t use any aspect of its medium as a digital card game except the ability to matchmake, which is hardly revolutionary.

This is why I do like Duelyst, though. The game does utilize its identity as a digital card game to the maximum, through the movement rules. Instead of having lengthy, complex rules about where cards can move, Duelyst says “Hey, when you click on a thing, you can move it to any space we highlight. Why do we highlight those spaces? Eh.”

Granted, this is not something totally impossible to replicate on tabletop, but it’s definitely rendered much simpler and better (and thus, the game is better) as a result. Duelyst also uses its identity as a digital card game in a different way: the animations in the game are absolutely beautiful. Unlike a physical card game, a digital card game can truly depict your deck as an actual fighting force, engaged in real combat, and it does. Hearthstone, meanwhile, has…cards. Which float, sometimes, I guess? And some particle effects?

This is Hearthstone‘s failure and Duelyst‘s success: Duelyst was built from the ground up with its format in mind, and the rules and mechanics, and style of the game were are built to maximize on a computer’s ability to perform clunky computations behind the scenes (like movement), and to show dynamic visuals. But I wouldn’t even say Duelyst is the apex of this idea.

Look at SolForge, the digital CCG designed by Richard Garfield, Magic‘s creator. In SolForge, cards can evolve mid-game, replacing themselves in the deck with better versions of themselves. If this were a physical card game, it’d be clunky as hell, with you having to own every card of your deck, in multiple, but in multiple on top of that, as you’d need every level of every card. However, this mechanic works wonderfully on a PC, because the computer just handles all of the card-handling behind the curtain, and doesn’t add extra complexity for the players.

This represents the kind of design philosophy I want to have when understanding CCGs: these games should use their medium to their advantage, and understand how to maximize that medium. Games should recognize the natural side-effects of their medium (like the used card market for a physical card game), and introduce mechanics that harmonize with their nature (like Duelyst‘s movement, or SolForge‘s card evolution). In doing so, you ensure you create an experience that is at least pleasurable for your players.

Quick-Time Event Planning and Tequila

D4's Protagonist, David Young, with some 100% agave tequila
D4’s Protagonist, David Young, with some 100% agave tequila

D4 is a weird-ass video game.

Specifically, D4 (short for Dark Dreams Don’t Die) is a weird-ass video game from SWERY65, most notable for his work directing Deadly Premonition, a cult-classic budget title from last-gen which still sits on my personal Pile of Shame. However, D4 was on sale this week, and I needed something short to fill my time before Fallout 4 came out, and I found myself quite enjoying this weird little romp.

The thing that stuck with me the most, though, was maybe how the game used Quick-Time events. Actually no, the thing that stuck with me the most was the effeminate fashion designer who has a mannequin girlfriend and yells “Aaaaaaaaaaaavant-garde!“. QTEs were a definite number two, though.

Specifically, a lot of the QTEs in this game felt so good. Never did I just have to hit an arbitrary button in order to make some obscure event happen. Instead, QTEs in this game are almost all extremely tied to the motion of the character: make an rightwards motion to open the fridge door, make an upwards motion to dive forward for a baseball, and, my personal favorite, swipe downwards to slam a shot glass formerly full of tequila on the table.

Now, I’m no stranger to games which have QTEs as a primary mechanic. Season One of The Walking Dead is one of the few games which made me cry, I strongly enjoyed my time with The Wolf Among Us, and Asura’s Wrath is one of my favorite power-trips I’ve ever gone on. Of these, I’d say Asura’s Wrath probably does this style of gameplay the best, although I’d definitely argue that D4 is up with it in the Pantheon of Good Quick-Time Events (pun intended).

The reason I’d put both of those games up there is because I’d say both are good at using Quick-Time Events for really badass scenes. Both games emphasize those sorts of moments with big, flashy UI signifying motions which feel analogous to the on-screen events.

A big, action QTE out of D4
A big, action QTE out of D4

I mean, look at that big, dumb arrow. In game, it shakes, and the cursor icon burns like a comet. Sending that thing flying across the screen feels great, and the scene is framed perfectly so it feels like you’re sending David’s fist right into this guy’s face in a way that feels more satisfying than “Press X to Punch”.

I wish more games did this. I know anyone well-versed in games can remember some anticlimactic moment where a game requested only a single button push to launch into some epic cinematic that feels no more interactive than pressing play on a cool YouTube video. Actually, even Asura’s Wrath suffers from this sometimes. A single button press only makes for a good QTE when that button press has already been contextualized (for instance, in a console FPS, right trigger is usually contextualized as “shoot”, so a QTE that results in the character shooting might reasonably require a press of right trigger). Otherwise, it doesn’t feel like actual guiding interaction. It just feels like pressing play.

That isn’t the end-all, though, as D4 shows. D4‘s controls are a bit clunky (I was playing the PC port, although the game’s original home on the Xbox One as a Kinect game may be to blame), and the mouse sensitivity was always just off, no matter what setting I set it to. In a game where feeling a one-to-one connection between cursor movements and the scene is the game, this alone was a big drawback.

Even more subtly destructive, though, was the way the QTEs, specifically the ones involving swiping along a line, were all sort of the same. By that, I mean I always did them the same: by swiping the cursor along that line as fast as possible. Don’t get me wrong, in some scenes, especially the ones where that big, obnoxious arrow pops up, moving fast feels perfectly fitting. If I’m gonna throw a punch at some idiot’s face, I wanna do that with all of my speed and strength.

But that’s not the majority of D4‘s QTEs, though. Most of them are just David, like, opening a door. D4 makes me feel a connection between my gestures and the game world, but it doesn’t feel complete when I move my cursor as quickly as possible, only to have David gingerly open a door. It breaks my connection with the game. All of a sudden, it doesn’t feel like I’m controlling David with my gestures anymore. Now it just feels like an extremely elaborate play button, to watch a pre-recorded video of David opening a door.

It might seem like a really petty thing to complain about, but when I wildly swing my cursor from one side of the screen to the other, I want David to slam that door! I want to feel like my motion is translating directly into motion in the game, and isn’t just a motion-based play button. Sure, better mouse sensitivity was probably required to make such a thing work in the first place, but it would have made for a nice touch. It’s not like the game doesn’t revel in little gestures (again, the tequila shot), so being able to add our own little spin on each scene, by being able to play David as a different character based on our gestures, would have been a nice touch.

If I ever build a game with QTEs as the main mechanic, I think I’ll try to focus on this. Maybe don’t allow players to build their character through dialogue options or stats, but instead by motion. Maybe some players could play David as a careful, detail-oriented detective, who does everything slowly and with precision, while others play David as a rampaging rogue cop, slamming every door in sight. Body language is, after all, the source of most human communication, so it would be interesting to allow players to express themselves in such a way.