10 Good Ideas: You Don’t Know Jack and Screws

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You Don’t Know Jack is a long-running but somewhat obscure series of party trivia games, sort of like if the trivia questions that play on the TVs at a Buffalo Wild Wings were written by an asshole. The name of the game is simple questions, phrased in such a way to maximize confusion. This includes special types of questions like Who’s The Dummy, where the host delivers the question through a ventriloquist’s dummy and, due to the voice he puts on, can’t pronounce the letters B, P, or M.

The point of You Don’t Know Jack is to rile up a reaction, and being able to logically think through a question while you’re also laughing at the ridiculous premise is the primary skill required when playing. This, as one might expect, makes You Don’t Know Jack a great party game, since it’s far better to laugh at a ridiculous premise, or to try and reason why a question about Nostradamus has only video games for answers, as a group.

Of course, this only goes so far. While you might be all laughing or confused at a question together, the base rules of the game don’t actually involve direct interaction. Multiple players can select the same answer, so there’s no risk of being “locked out” of the solution to a question. At this point, You Don’t Know Jack involves as much interaction as regular bar trivia, which is, y’know, fine?

Here’s where screws come in. Players receive a single screw per game, a powerful weapon to use against their opponents. Basically, when you use your screw (or, if you prefer, when you screw), you pick one of your opponents, who then has to answer the question in five seconds, or else they take a massive score deduction. If the screwee gets the question right in five seconds, the screwer ends up taking that deduction instead.

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What separates the screw from other quiz game/show interaction mechanics is that the screw kind of has nothing to do with understanding the game, per se. Questions are largely equally confusing, meaning that “screw on the toughest question” doesn’t tend to emerge as a viable strategy for players. Furthermore, “screw the player in the lead” isn’t bulletproof either, as the player in the lead is also probably good at the game, and has the best chance of answering a question in time to make your screw backfire.

What screws do reward is knowing your friends. In my time with the game, the strategy that eventually always emerges is to screw someone when a topic comes up that they know nothing about. When I play with my friends, I am almost universally screwed on questions involving any sort of knowledge of professional sports. My friend Craig gets screwed on questions on classic literature and cinema. My friend Stephen gets screwed on celebrity culture. Since there’s such a punishment for having a screw backfire, you want to make sure that screws land on players that have no chance of answering the question right, and the best way to do that in a room full of your friends is to remember what your friends are and aren’t interested in.

Screws also serve another fantastic purpose, which is that they make you pay attention to the room. Normally, when you’re doing any sort of group trivia, reading the room is largely a useless skill. You can try and notice whenever someone’s struggling with a question, but there’s nothing you can do about it. Screws change that dynamic, and whenever I play You Don’t Know Jack, any sort of verbal admittance of confusion (usually involving the word “fuck”) is very shortly followed by that player getting screwed. In the same way that a good board game makes you pay attention to your friends, so too does You Don’t Know Jack, as you lie in wait for someone to admit any sort of weakness so that you can screw them and tear their score to ribbons.

It is thoroughly my opinion that multiplayer games, of any sort, should be designed in such a way that players can inject their own personalities, as well as the dynamic of the group as a whole, into the game, so as to make each play unique. Some games do this by simply allowing such a wide range of strategies that players can express themselves through strategy, like Civilization. Others require a degree of creativity on the players’ behalf to create part of the game, like Legacy board games or The Metagame. And some require you to know your friends’ personalities and use that knowledge against them, like Coup, poker, or You Don’t Know Jack. And for rewarding me for knowing my friends, and for reading their behavior, screws are a Good Idea.

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10 Good Ideas: Dead Rising 2 and Combo Weapons

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Dead Rising 2 still burns in my heart as the pinnacle of the Dead Rising series up to this point. While there have been 4 games in the series (technically 7, counting the spin-off Off the Record and the downloadable titles Case Zero and Case West), Dead Rising 2 represents the point where the series really managed to achieve it’s goal of being a big, silly, dumb sandbox designed to fulfill power fantasies and elicit giggles from its players.

For the unaware, Dead Rising is a series of open-world sandbox games where the player fights their way through hordes of zombies using weapons and items scavenged from the environment. The first two games take place in shopping malls filled with shops selling weird and obscure nonsense, although later games take place in full towns. Crazy boss battles are sprinkled through the environment against Psychopaths (which, again, is an idea that got sunsetted as the series went on), and these complement the main story.

The core Dead Rising gameplay loop involves players entering a large space with limited resources and an objective in mind, ranging from saving a survivor to defeating a Psychopath to just simply moving from one end of the area to the other. The player must scavenge their environment for items to increase their fighting ability. As the player makes their way through the area, they expend these resources (items degrade and eventually break with use), forcing constant scavenging. Killing zombies is encouraged as a way to make the path to your objective safer and to gain XP, thus encouraging this churn of items.

This loop works perfectly well in the original Dead Rising, but it never quite, in my experience, makes the player really learn the map. Players might memorize the locations of a couple of key shops (the grocery store and the gun shop being stand-outs in my mind), but other than that, weapons and healing items can be pretty consistently found in any part of the mall.

Dead Rising 2 featured a change in protagonist, from the photojournalist Frank West to the motorcycle rider and mechanic Chuck Greene. To signal this change mechanically, Dead Rising 2 abandons the photography mechanics in the first game and instead introduces a mechanic designed to emphasize Chuck as a mechanic: combo weapons.

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Combo weapons are pretty simple, conceptually. Certain pairs of items in the game world can be taken to the workbenches scattered around the map and slapped together into new, unique weapons which are stronger, cooler, and grant more XP than normal weapons

Combo weapons are immediate a fantastic way of incorporating Chuck’s story identity into the game mechanics, but they do so much more mechanical heavy lifting than that. For starters, the existence of combo weapons forces players to take much greater care into remembering the layout and stores of the mall. Since combo weapons are so good, players are incentivized to use them, so as a result players will naturally try to remember the locations of valuable item spawns across the map so that they can build combo weapons more consistently. Sure, you can find any ol’ weapon in any ol’ store, but if I remember where the boxing gym is, I can build the Knife Gloves, and then I get to be Wolverine, and that’s awesome.

Combo weapons also encourage exploration, as quite a few of them have their combo card unlocked by saving survivors, defeating Psychopaths, or by finding posters in the environment which provide the inspiration for the weapon. This is a great way to grant tangible benefits to exploration and quest completion. Not only do you get the sort of intangible gain of ticking off quests or saving X survivors, but you also get cool new toys to play with. The same actually goes for those combo cards you get through level-up. Dead Rising has actually always been pretty good about giving exciting level-up benefits (mainly pro-wrestling moves?), but getting a big, dumb new weapon is a great, tangible benefit that’s much more exciting than a simple stat boost.

Another thing combo weapons do well is build up a sense of anticipation and mystery, weird as that sounds. You see, when you pick up an item that’s used in a combo weapon, it’s marked with a little wrench icon, like this:

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This occurs whether or not you know what the combo weapon actually is, so it means that as you’re going through the early hours of the game, you might pick up something like a construction helmet and think “Wait, what does this make?”. You might be motivated to wander around the world and try to piece together the combo weapon through trial-and-error (which you can do, more on that later), and when you finally figure out the combination, either by deducing it or by getting the combo card later, you get the resolution of figuring it out. As this builds up, you feel like you’re getting better and better at whipping together super-powered weapons out of the environment, which you are, and you gain a sense of mastery.

Back to that trial-and-error point. If combo weapons could only be used when they were unlocked, players might feel like their options were a little limited at first. However, a combo weapon can be put together at any time with the right ingredients, having the card merely grants a secondary fire and greater XP gain. So, players never feel arbitrarily blocked off from the cooler weapons, but combo cards still feel like they offer cool benefits to the player when earned. Adventurous players can “cheat” and discover weapons early, and less clever players still get a nice feed of new combo recipes even if they don’t experiment. Genius.

Dead Rising 2 is a game about exploring, about mastering your environment, and about doing dumb things, goals all advanced and made better through the genius inclusion of combo weapons. So, yeah, combo weapons in Dead Rising 2, a Good Idea.

10 Good Ideas: Halo 3 ODST and Non-Linear Storytelling

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Let’s start this bad boy up with an unpopular opinion: Halo 3 ODST is the best Halo game, period.

This is, obviously, an opinion, and a lot of it has to do with how the setting and the fantasy of Halo don’t really do a lot for me. The idea of being a nigh-unkillable space marine is cool, sure, but the games don’t really execute on it in the way that I like, with enemies being pretty bullet spongey and the player character never really mechanically feeling “like a badass”, especially on higher difficulties and when compared to other “badass space marine” power fantasies like DOOM or Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine.

ODST has a special place in my heart, however, as a game that I felt like always married its narrative with the Halo mechanics much better than the mainline series. ODST doesn’t pair the protagonist with sick guitar riffs, reverential NPC dialogue, and that one hype battle song (dudun du DUUUUN, dududu, dudun du DUUUUN, you know the one). Instead, the game has this dark, rainy atmosphere, a much more survivalist tone, and a somber, jazzy soundtrack that almost sounds a bit like a dirge.

Matching this mood change is a change in story. Halo games typically follow this plot structure: there’s a big thing that’s very bad. Master Chief goes to that big thing and blows it up. Weirdly, this tends to be both the atomic story element (blow up this Scarab, blow up this AA gun) as well as the greater story (blow up the Halo, blow up the Ark), although “rescue Cortana” gets sprinkled in a decent amount too.

ODST‘s plot, meanwhile, actually largely focuses on a lot of the protagonist, simply called “the Rookie”, stumbling around trying to figure out what happened. You end up finding evidence of your squad’s movements through the city, and finding these items triggers flashback missions, showing what your squadmates got up to in that area. You don’t have to do the flashbacks in order, you just sort of piece them together as you go along.

I have a basically completely unsubstantiated theory about Halo 3: ODST. The game’s materials and promotional content pitch this game as a more “down to Earth” Halo game, with players leaving the shoes of Master Chief, who is a literal super-soldier, and instead finding themselves playing someone who is much more of a normal dude. Here’s my conspiracy theory: the player character is not, in any significant way, powered-down between Halo 3 and Halo 3: ODST.

I’m having a hard time collecting concrete numbers to substantiate this theory, but here’s my reasoning: the Master Chief has always actually been kinda squishy in-game, and his “super soldier-ness” seems most supported mechanically by his large reserve of rechargeable shields, meaning the player can afford to run into danger and take some hits. In ODST, by pulling these shields back just a little bit and returning to a health kit system, players still do and take the same amount of damage, it’s just that they’re punished for being more gung-ho.

The main way that ODST creates a tone of weakness for the player is through story and setting elements. As mentioned above, a somber soundtrack replaces a heroic one, the game is dark and shadowy instead of bright and colorful, and perhaps most importantly, the player character is not the main catalyst of the story. Instead of doing all of the really cool things, you see the results after the fact.

Of course, players don’t like not being the main executor of story events, just look at some of the negative responses to The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion‘s story, which at times feels like you’re the bodyguard for the protagonist, instead of the protagonist. ODST doesn’t want you to be the hero that saves the day, that’s not the tone it’s going for. However, it cheats: you, the Rookie, aren’t the one who does all the cool stuff, but you, the player, are. You still get to play all of those cool scenes where you drive a Scorpion and you are the elite sniper or whatever, but since those are flashbacks, these scenes don’t create a sense that the Rookie is this sort of super-protagonist in the way the Master Chief is.

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Here, look at a list of the things the player, not just the player character, does in Halo 3: ODST.

  • lead a charge of Marines using a Scorpion tank to pierce Covenant lines
  • defend, and then blow up, an ONI base
  • hijack a Covenant dropship
  • fight a Scarab
  • retrieve and escort a super-important AI

Man, those…sound like regular ol’ Halo objectives, don’t they? Most of those are things that the Master Chief actually does on his own in mainline Halo games. On top of all of that, consider that you’re fighting the same enemies, with the same guns, and they’re going down in the same number of hits.

However, Bungie tricks the players, through the use of music, color, environment design, and narrative design, to “remix” this set of Halo setpieces to feel like a totally different game. When you compare ODST to other Halo games in terms of mission design and raw combat mechanics, not a lot is actually different. However, since the players are taken out of the driver’s seat of the story, narratively, even though they actually 100% are not when you actually look at what the player does over the course of the game, they don’t feel like a world-saving badass, despite doing all of the things world-saving badasses do.

With a few clever tricks of narrative design, Halo 3: ODST tricks players into thinking that what is ultimately any other Halo game is a reserved, quiet, more grounded experience, using minimal changes to repackage the Halo experience into something totally new, and that is a Good Idea.

 

10 Good Ideas: Blitz: The League II and Thirty Yard Downs

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Here’s an uncontroversial opinion for someone as heavily invested in “nerdy” hobbies as I am: I don’t much care for American football. Where I differ is in the amount of it I’ve watched in comparison to most people with similar “geeky” dispositions. I worked at what was ostensibly a sports bar for four years, in the suburbs of Dallas, a very, very football-heavy town. I feel pretty comfortable saying that I’ve watched a majority of NFL games for at least the last three years.

I certainly don’t think football is per se bad, mostly just boring. A common phrase I hear said is “football is a game of inches” which is between our co-opting of the word “football” and use of the imperial units, maybe one of the most American expressions possible. This phrase is supposed to speak to football’s very strategic nature, but for me it just highlights how slow the game is. The game is typically played in ten to fifteen second bouts, before the whistle’s blown, everyone just sorta stops and putzes around, and maybe you see an advertisement for Carl’s Jr. or something. Most plays, to me, look like a lot of dudes just sort of crouching, before most of them just slap into each other, and maybe the guy with the ball moves forward six feet, maybe he throws the ball, and maybe he just falls down.

With this, let’s call it, lukewarm opinion of football, it’s easy to find it surprising that I really like Blitz: The League II. In fact, not counting motorsports or extreme sports, Blitz is the only sports game I own. So, what does this game do to the formula of American football that changes it from a snoozefest to a staple on my shelf to my eyes? Simple. Blitz makes football dumb.

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It does this in a lot of fairly superficial ways: you can beat the hell out of opposing players, leading to some ridiculous, Mortal Kombat style X-ray views of bones being broken and nuts being smashed, and there’s also a full subsystem for exorbitant touchdown dances, my personal favorite involving pretending to poop out the football. When it comes to mechanics, though, Blitz: The League II makes one change that radically changes the game, and that’s thirty yard downs.

Let me back up here. In American football, play is measured in terms of downs, with each down basically being a unit of play. A team, when on offense, gets four downs, or basically four plays, to attempt to move the ball 10 yards. If they do, they are awarded another four downs to attempt to move the ball 10 yards. Either the ball ends up making it all the way to the end zone, or a team will fail to move the ball 10 yards in four downs, causing possession to switch. I realize that my American readers are probably scoffing at the idea of me explaining football, but between international readers and just, like, nerds, I figured it was worth the explanation.

In Blitz: The League II‘s rendition of football, however, this rule is changed slightly. Instead of having to advance 10 yards in four downs, a team in Blitz needs to advance thirty, or a fourth of the field. This does a massive amount towards making the game faster-paced, more aggressive, and host to more ridiculous stunt plays.

You see, when you have four downs to move a measly ten yards, you can kind of afford to have small gains with every play. Moving two and a half yards a play is not terribly difficult, but it’s not terribly exciting either. If we presume an average human running speed of about 10 mph (which is admittedly a pretty rough ballpark), an average person can run two and a half yards in about half a second unopposed. Factoring in acceleration time, as well as taking non-straight routes due to opposing players, we’re still talking maybe a couple of seconds to accomplish the distance. That means that, on average, if you’re running the ball, a successful play only needs to run a couple of seconds. When you consider that, between downs, players have to reconfigure and maybe huddle up to devise and disseminate a strategy, these short bursts of action end up kind of boring. They’re too fast for you to really build up excitement, and what excitement you do build up fizzles out in the long downtime.

When you have to move seven and a half yards a down, however, things get a smidge more interesting. We’re now sitting at about a second and a half for an average human to run that in an optimal line, 300% the length of regulation football. Moreover, we have to consider a change in strategy. According to the stats given by TeamRankings, literally every single NFL team averaged less than 7.5 yards per play last season, and in fact, every season for the last 10 years. This means that all of your strategies that form the meat and potatoes of your team’s play need to be thrown out the window.

So, what is the strategic status quo that we’re shaking up? Well, let’s look at the statistics. Last season, NFL teams passed the ball for between 50% and 65% of plays, and those passes yielded between 5.5 to 8.9 yards on average, depending on the team. Again depending on the team, these passes were successful between about 54% to 70% of the time. Actually, let’s plot pass completion percentages and average yards per pass, shall we?

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We can see a positive correlation that teams complete more passes get more yards per pass, which is good! Let’s look at passing play percentage versus pass completion percentage now.

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There is way weaker a correlation there, with results pretty much being all over the place. What this means, with a rough statistical analysis, is that in football, passing a lot doesn’t necessary correlate to completing a lot of passes, but completing a lot of passes does correlate to a large amount of gain from those passes. In layman’s terms, I have statistical support for the anecdotally obvious: passing is a high risk, high reward play.

What the hell does this have to do with anything? Why did I start talking about passing so much all of a sudden? Well, anecdotally, passing is probably the most interesting thing that can happen in a single play. It’s harder skillwise to throw a ball successfully and then for someone else to catch it successfully than it is to just sort of hold a ball (while both are pretty hard in an NFL setting), making it a bit more of a technical feat to watch. Passing the ball puts it in the air, making it a bit more visible than if it’s in a big mob of dudes. Passing opens up potential for interceptions, which tend to be big, dramatic moments in the game. The act of passing also just creates anticipation, as the crowd watches the ball go through the air, watches a player line up to catch it and the defense move to counter, and everyone naturally tries to complete the situation in their head before it happens.

What does this have to do with Blitz: The League II. Well, sparing you another graph, you can look here and see that, generally speaking, running the ball yields fewer yards than passing it. This is fine in a ten-yard down game, you can see that every team on average scores more yards per run than the two and a half they “need” to. However, in a thirty-yard down game like Blitz, these numbers don’t cut it. All of this data basically exists to prove something that your average football player knew the second they read the headline: in a thirty-yard down game, you have to pass more. More passing means more anticipation, more clarity, and more big plays. All things that I find interesting. And, for that, thirty yard downs in Blitz: The League II are a Good Idea.

10 Good Ideas: Fallout: New Vegas and the Faction System

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It is frankly astonishing to me that I haven’t talked about Fallout: New Vegas significantly on this blog, because I think it might be my favorite game? I have a tattoo symbolizing it, after all, so I should probably talk about it.

For me, the shining jewel in New Vegas‘s crown of good design is the faction system. You see, from basically the moment you set foot out in the Mojave Wasteland, you become immediately aware of a series of factions, wielding varying amounts of power. Some, like the New California Republic and Caesar’s Legion, are massive, world-bending forces vying for complete control of the Wasteland. Others, like the Powder Gangers and the Great Khans, are smaller gangs who control small pieces of turf in the Wasteland. Others yet are singular towns, like Goodsprings and Novac, just trying to get by.

The previous Fallout game, Fallout 3, had a binary morality system which existed on a single scale from good to evil, which was fine? Ultimately, it ended up feeling like your character was either a saint, a monster, or just some sort of morally ambiguous blob. If you were bad, bad people liked you. If you were good, good people liked you. It was something, certainly more than a lot of games, but it wasn’t terribly interesting. New Vegas did away with this, and did something great.

You see, New Vegas measures not your morality, but your standing with each individual faction. This is so good for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, it allows for a greater moral depth to your character. In Mass Effect, a game with a traditional morality scale, I always felt like the scale didn’t quite capture the way my Shepherd behaved: I was a mondo dick to most everyone, but fiercely loyal to my crew members. The game just ended up labeling me “mostly a mondo dick”, which I found kind of incomplete. In New Vegas, if I want to be a valuable ally to the factions that align themselves with me, and a complete scourge to anyone in my way, the game mechanically portrays that. Instead of just everyone thinking I’m kind of an asshole, the people I’m allied with will treat me like an old friend, and the people who hate me will shoot me on sight.

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Here’s another cool thing: these faction reputations are on multiple axes. There are separate measures of Fame and Infamy, meaning that if you murder a bunch of Powder Gangers, then out of the blue give them a ton of help, they’re reaction isn’t to just do a 180 and love you, instead they’re actively confused, as they should be.

Just having this system is really cool, but the way the game leverages this to make interesting missions, and interesting mission solutions, makes it even better. An entire act of the game basically requires you become either favored by or to destroy whole factions in order to pave the road for the final conflict. Some missions become much easier, as you would expect, with certain faction reputation. If some rando needs the NCR to jump in to defend a town, it might require a bit of convincing. If a valuable ally of the NCR needs them to defend a town, however, sure, we owe the guy this.

That’s, ultimately, the cleverness of the faction system, is that it is such a powerful narrative and mechanical force. The main plot of New Vegas is actively changed by which factions you ally with and which you forsake. The final fight on Hoover Dam can be fought on either side, or optionally you can storm it as a dark horse force all your own. Whether you fight the battle all your own, with the help of one of the big factions, with the booming artillery of the Boomers, or any other number of factors depends on your faction rankings. Hell, if you don’t like any of the big factions, you can basically assemble one on your own, a patchwork of all of the factions you like.

On the flip side, the faction system provides mechanical representation of your narrative choices within the game world. The merchants available to you change depending on your faction reputation. Your reputation with certain factions determines how you think of the game map, with certain areas changing from bastions of safety to enemy fortresses depending on your choices and your reputation. The big factions might even send hit squads to kill you if they hate you enough. Your experience in the game world changes based on your factions, and each playthrough is different depending on your different faction alignments.

The faction system is a nuanced, clever way to represent the way the player interacts with the game world, and also changes the game world in response to the player’s choices, creating a cyclical force which strengthens the player’s connection to the Mojave Wasteland, and for that, it’s a Good Idea.

10 Good Ideas: Age of Mythology and God Powers

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A lot of people have an RTS which defines their youth. For some it’s Starcraft, others Warcraft III, others yet maybe played Age of Empires II or Command and Conquer. For me, though, one game in the genre ruled my childhood, and that game was Ensemble Studios’s spin-off of the Age of Empires series, a fantastical, mythological romp called Age of Mythology.

I’m not really one for super-tactical RTS play. I’ve played all of the above games, but I never really considered them my favorites. The tactics and planning involved in them are very long-term and forward-thinking, meaning the atomic elements of your victory or defeat ultimately lie in very minor decisions early into the game, like how you manage your worker units, what units you build in what order, and where you build your structures. Extremely deep and tactical, yes, but hardly an explosive or exciting turn of events. I found that, often times in RTSs, I had moments where either an enemy just snowballed so far past me due to superior decision making in these microdecisions, or I suffered death by a thousand cuts and went “Oh, I guess I lose now”.

Age of Mythology certainly still has these elements, and I’m sure if I played it anything resembling competitively, I’d still have to worry about those microdecisions, but Age of Mythology offers something to the casual player that has that kind of explosive game-altering effect that normal RTS play kind of doesn’t: god powers.

You see, when playing a game of Age of Mythology, you select one of 5 ancient civilizations to play, and each has a pantheon of gods to worship. Worshipping those gods requires spending resources and building structures to enter different Ages, these Ages constituting the main source of progression through a game. When you successfully worship a god, they usually grant you a new kind of unit you can build, as well as a god power: a single use ability that can be triggered at any time.

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While the effects of any given atomic gameplay decision in an RTS tends to have relatively minor changes to the game space (think building or killing a single unit, pursuing a single upgrade, or assigning a worker to a single task), god powers are usually big, bombastic, and seemingly tide-turning. Some, like Lightning Storm and Earthquake, can wipe out meticulously constructed armies and bases with ease. Others, like Lure or Forest Fire, can create massive imbalances in the game’s economy. Others yet can instantly boost armies with powerful units, like Nidhogg and Ragnarok, providing a trump card that can turn a losing battle into a winning one, and some like Underworld Passage can grant players increased mobility with their armies, allowing for some underhanded positioning.

God powers provide flashy, game-changing moments in a genre not typically known for them, and they’re provided at a constant drip throughout the game, rather than just saving them at the end (like Starcraft‘s Nukes). They also, of course, add tactical depth to the game for more seasoned players. The game announces whenever you’ve successfully worshipped a god, so veteran players will know what god powers everyone has. Furthermore, you can pick between two gods, and thus two god powers, every time you advance an Age, giving you tactical choices in how you decide to progress.

God powers serve a valuable purpose for new or casual players. Getting god powers requires you to successfully advance your Age, which in turn requires you to perform certain steps, be it building structures, accruing Favor (an in-game resource), or assigning workers to certain roles. By putting requirements on god powers like this, it forces new players to think strategically in order to get the requirements for their Age. In another layer of genius, every civilization accrues Favor differently, in a manner fitting of their strengths, meaning that for a new player to get the Favor needed to get a god power, they have to play to their civ’s strengths, incentivizing them to play in a more strategic manner. God powers are a reward for playing smart.

For experienced players, god powers are equally valuable. Since god powers ultimately are obtained by doing the things that mark normal good RTS play (tactical base construction, good build queue management, etc), god powers serve as a reward and a reinforcement for the play you’re already used to doing. The selection of god powers, and playing around your opponent’s god powers, grants greater strategic depth. The game-breaking effects of god powers also let you perform extremely silly and off-the-wall strategies that wouldn’t work without them, like leading your enemy into seemingly unfair battle, only to summon Nidhogg and lay waste to the previously superior army.

God powers are ideal for a mix-up to the RTS formula because they provide something for both casual and experienced players. For casual players, they provide, big, flashy, cool effects that can change the shape of the game, and they help rebuke strategies that might end up steamrolling them early on (a big enemy army can be destroyed by Lighting Storm, and suboptimal resource gathering can be bolstered by Lure). For experienced players, god powers add an extra layer of strategic depth to the game, further raising the skill ceiling. By giving something to both casual and experienced players, god powers in Age of Mythology are a Good Idea.

 

A Love Letter To The Game of My Childhood: Team Fortress 2

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February 2009. After much saving, price-hunting, waiting, and bothering my parents, I finally am able to convince my parents to split the costs of an Xbox 360 with me. This marks a transitional period of my life: prior to this point, I’d solely played games on Nintendo consoles. The Xbox 360 marked the point where I left Nintendo’s walled garden and could begin to explore the wide world of video games as a whole. And, boy, I had some catching up to do.

My first game purchases were a greatest hits collection of a console that was already experiencing its first major Golden Age, and as a child who would watch G4 while home alone on summer vacation, I knew what games I needed to pick up. Fallout 3 was my first purchase, followed closely by Mass Effect and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. As my wallet began to empty (how did I have so much spending money at age 13?), I knew that the games I was buying needed to be able to fill a lot of time. Open world games like Dead Rising and Assassin’s Creed were good choices, but I also remembered a deal unlike other: 5 games, each critically praised as masterpieces, bundled together. The Orange Box.

The Orange Box as a disk defined my adolescence. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve beaten Half Life 2, but it’s somewhere over a dozen. Portal is a masterpiece that has since been immortalized on countless “Best Games Ever” lists, but the game that I sunk the most time into was on the far right of the main menu:

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Team Fortress 2 was far from my first experience with multiplayer shooters; my friends used to meet up to play Halo at each others’ houses all through middle school. However, something about that game enraptured me unlike any other. The characters in the game had developed personalities, ones that were expressed in their gameplay (we were a good way into the Meet The Team video series by this point in time). Characters had distinct playstyles, allowing for the game to become totally different for the player just by changing classes. Most crucially of all, however, was a simple fact: games were long.

A single game on 2Fort could easily take upwards of an hour, and while there were certainly moments of tension as teams would take turns attempting to raid the enemy fort or batter down ridiculous defenses, there was also plenty of down time as players just sort of goofed off. Your Spies were in the sewers trying not to get caught, your Snipers locked in a pissing contest to see who could headshot each other the most, your Engineers just thwackin’ away at their turrets. You had time to kill.

In this time, because I was a stupid teenager, I’d get on voice chat and talk to the people in game. Normally, these interactions were, to use a modern term, completely cancerous, with people just yelling obscenities, but occasionally you’d meet some cool people, and just hang out and have fun. I met a group of people like this, and ended up joining their regular gaming group, a set of people who would just get on Team Fortress 2 together and just goof off. Sometimes we’d play seriously, and sometimes we’d hop back on 2Fort and just mess around.

I think this experience was extremely positive for me. To say nothing of positive social interaction’s benefit on a young dweeb kid, it taught me how much fun can be had playing games in a social manner. If you look at that list of games that I’d bought for my 360 prior to The Orange Box, there’s a commonality: they’re all single-player games. While I’d played Halo with my friends, that was almost always in a strictly competitive mindset. Even if playing something like Team Deathmatch, that was, in essence, a free-for-all where you aren’t allowed to shoot half of the people. Team Fortress 2 showed me how much fun it could be to form a cohesive team, to devise terrible strategies and watch them fail miserably, to learn a game’s secrets from your friends and to pass on secrets of your own.

Team Fortress 2 was built, from the ground up, to allow for this. Each character is both so mechanically distinct from one another, and so specialized, that it makes it really easy to develop brand new strategies just by forming novel configurations of classes. Each class had its subtle nuances that only veteran players of the class would know, like the various tells that could give away a Spy’s disguise, the best places to set up Engineer turrets, or the precise mechanics of stickybomb jumping as the Demoman. By having each class be so deep, it encouraged people to explore the classes and learn those secrets, and it made figuring them out make you feel like a wise old sage full of forbidden wisdom. You had traveled to the peak, and from the voice of the wind itself, only you had learned the secret of how to make the Spy walk all weird.

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This was the equivalent to knowing a secret Mason handshake

The magic to Team Fortress 2 wasn’t recaptured for me by very many other games. Valve’s own Left 4 Dead series managed to recapture that feeling of mastery, as I have blogged about previously, and Overwatch has as well, while also featuring that possibility space of strategies that’s fun to explore. However, Team Fortress 2 had both that easy-to-learn, hard-to-master complexity and the large strategic possibility space, but also had a design that encouraged low-stakes play, allowing for genuinely fun social spaces to emerge, and for players to really just have fun doing dumb things and seeing if they worked without wasting precious seconds of a short timer, or throwing the entire team back to the start of a level.

That’s the shining core of Team Fortress 2 for me. The part where you take all of the experience you have playing the game, and apply it to a game with innumerable strategic possibilities, and attempt to generate the most moronic strategy conceivable. While I’m sure I had plenty of well-executed strategies in my time of playing TF2, the moments I remember are 12 man Scout rushes, are moments where as a Spy I was in so deep I was participating in the other team’s raids on my base, and attempting to set up an Engineer’s turret deep into an enemy base. When these moments worked out, they felt like an expression of game mastery, like I was bending the mechanics to my will. When they didn’t, I was laughing at how stupid the idea was in the first place.

This, the ability to be dumb, is what makes Team Fortress 2 a masterpiece in my eyes.