Category: theory

Up until this point, equipment has been a pretty minor part of Conclave.  When you create a character, you get assigned some basic items; at levels 3 and 5, the Council upgrades one of these for you.  You have no say in what you get, no opportunity to customize your weapons or armor or anything at all.  With the release of the Vault of Arms, that will all begin to change.

The Vault of Arms is a new place you can visit from the map.  At the Vault, you can use your Renown – the stock of faith and reputation you’ve built up with the Council – to take equipment from the Conclave.  Weapons, armor, shields, and other miscellaneous items are all available for your use.  You are only limited by the Renown you’ve built up.

When you see that brown tower appear on your quest map, you'll know the Vault is open for business.

So how do you get Renown?  Simple: by completing quests.  Each quest will earn you some Renown to “spend” in the Vault.  (Note that there may be other ways to get Renown in the future.)  I say “spend” because you never lose your Renown; your Renown simply puts a limit on how much equipment you can “check out” from the Vault.  For example, perhaps my True Bow has accumulated 500 Renown.  I might use it to borrow a Rastanhi heavy bow (250 Renown) and a bronze scale cuirass (also 250 Renown), say.  Later, I might decide to trade those items back in, and take out an Ashenweald spirit bow (500 Renown).  I can make these changes any time my party isn’t on a quest.

Why did we go with this model instead of the familiar “accumulate treasure, spend it at the shop” approach?  Flavor was the main driver.  We wanted a place where characters could go to choose from equipment that would scale up as they grew more powerful and faced greater challenges, but the traditional RPG shop is a bit of a flavor disaster: where do shopkeepers get all this great stuff?  If they have it, why are they spending their time running a shop?  But the Conclave itself has resources – smiths, artisans, some practitioners of magic – and should be able to keep characters equipped appropriately for a long time.  Renown provides an alternative currency that fits the flavor of the game better than gold and limits what the Conclave will make available to characters.  Prove yourself, and you will be rewarded with greater trust.

Mechanically, we also get the opportunity to maximize player options in tinkering with their characters’ equipment.  In a shop-based model, you lose money on each transaction: if you buy a bow for 50 GP, you can bet you’ll get a lot less than that if you sell it back.  That means experimentation is costly.  We wanted to make experimentation cheap, or more precisely free.  This means you can customize your equipment to the needs of a given quest, if you see fit.  Will this be fun?  We’re betting so, though we will also be keeping a careful eye out to make sure players don’t feel like they have to be changing equipment all the time in order to maximize the way they match up with each quest.  One reason we think we’ll be okay is that equipment will still play a fairly minor role in overall character power after the Vault is released (though it will be somewhat more important than it is today), so there’s no huge need to fiddle constantly with equipment.  Ideally, people who enjoy playing with equipment will have lots of fun, and those who don’t care as much simply won’t need to.

Some of you might be saying, “Sounds cool… but what about loot?”  Don’t worry, we haven’t forgotten how much fun it is to find that awesome and unexpected sword while out on an adventure.  The Vault is just the first step – albeit a big one – in our larger plan for items within Conclave.

When will the Vault arrive?  Well, we pretty much never talk about release dates – that’s just begging for trouble – but it’s fair to say you don’t have long to wait.  Really.

[This is part two in a series of posts on probability and roleplaying games.  You can begin with part 1 here.]

Who else remembers these?

RPG designers haven’t always looked at the role of probability in action-taking in the same way.  In fact, over time, those designers have made it more and more likely that players will succeed at their actions.

What’s the most common thing players do in RPGs?  They try to whack a baddie on the head.  So let’s start from there and see how likely, historically, you’ve been to successfully whack that baddie.  And let’s narrow it further and look at fantasy RPGs:  what happens when a fighter-type tries to smack a goblin with a sword?  How often does he hit?

If we jump in the Wayback Machine and head to the days of 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, said fighter’s chances ain’t looking so good.  A 1st-level human fighter with Strength 16 – average for a fighter using the recommended method for rolling character attributes – has only a 30% chance of hitting a lowly goblin with his sword.  That’s right:  just 30%.  Now, there were a lot of quirks to AD&D’s system are worth exploring in their own right, as they show other ways in which the genre has evolved; for example, all 1st-level characters had exactly the same chance to hit our poor goblin, but fighters were vastly more effective at higher levels, which is very different from how most modern games handle level progression.  Still, for now, we’ll just stick with our simple number.

In other words, back then, a character could be expected to fail at this core action over and over.  Fast forward to AD&D’s 3rd Edition, and the picture looks somewhat different.  Take the 1st-level human fighter again, still with Strength 16.  He’s got +4 to hit – +1 from having a level of fighter, +3 more from Strength – and he’s facing a goblin with an AC of 15.  This gives him exactly a 50% chance to hit.

Now look at the 1st-level human fighter of today.  He has a Strength of 18 if we use the standard score array and assign his +2 racial bonus to Strength.  This gives him +4 to hit from his strength, +3 more from using a long sword.  We presume he chose the one-handed combat style, for +1 more.  We assume no other bonuses from feats, and that he’s just using his basic attack, instead of a power like Sure Strike.  There’s not just a single goblin for him to face, but most goblins have an AC of 16.  Now he has a 65% chance to hit.

What we see in these numbers is a direct and dramatic climb in the chances of success over the years.  This change can’t have been accidental:  just take a look at the notes on variant rules in the 3rd Edition Dungeon Masters Guide to understand how sensitive the D&D game design team was to the impact of much more minor rules changes than than these.  The designers made a conscious decision to have players succeed more and more often at their actions.

Okay then:  why has the number changed so much over time?  I think there are four interrelated answers:

  1. Success is fun.  While letting players succeed with their characters’ actions all the time takes away the benefits of dice-rolling, players will nevertheless have more fun if they succeed more often than they fail.
  2. Inaction is boring.  Failure usually results in nothing happening; a miss in combat, or a failed skill check, is usually wasted time.
  3. Wasting limited resources feels frustrating.  If I can only cast a certain number of spells each combat, or can only use my special power twice per day, I’m going to save it up for when it matters; when the time comes, I want it to be likely to count for something.  (You can see 4th Edition D&D take this a step further by introducing a number of daily powers that are guaranteed to have at least some effect, albeit a reduced one, even if they fail.)
  4. Failing takes time.  Assuming that the rate of foe failure is similar to that of characters (not always true, but close enough), introducing more failures means that the time it takes to resolve a conflict in a game is directly lengthened by the chance of failure, without changing the eventual outcome.

Now, you can have too much of a good thing.  The previous post already explored a bit of why succeeding all the time isn’t necessarily good.  Consider also what happens if the time allotted to a conflict is compressed by a very high rate of success:  that leaves fewer opportunities for player decisions, fewer chances for tactics and dramatic roleplaying, fewer moments where a gamemaster or computer can spring a surprise on the players.

But the point is that the people in the know – the Dungeons & Dragons designers, reacting to ever increasing amounts of data – steadily hiked up the chance of success, because they saw reasons such changes would improve their game.

Now, another factor started to appear in the ’80s, and has proceeded to become ever more significant, which is the rise of computer RPGs – games which began as followers in the trends set by paper and pencil RPGs, but have since switched roles to become leaders.  More on the impact of CRPGs, and the evolution of Conclave’s own use of probability to decide the results of actions, in the next post.

A great roll... but why are we rolling in the first place?

One question a game designer must ask is how often players should be able to succeed at the actions they take.  In many games, success is automatic:  you can’t fail to use a capturing move in chess, say, or to buy a property in Monopoly.  In fact, the majority of non-electronic games are based off of automatic success.  This is not to say random elements – the roll of a die to determine movement, say, or the cards you draw from a shuffled deck – but most such games limit the actions you can take through randomness, rather than leaving up to chance whether or not you will be able to successfully take your actions.

RPGs are one major exception to this rule.  Another is wargaming, roleplaying’s ancestor: Dungeons & Dragons evolved out of Chainmail, which took the mechanics of wargaming and applied them to the swords and sorcery genre.  As part of its inheritance, Dungeons & Dragons relied heavily on dice to determine if player actions succeeded.  (In fact, early editions of Dungeons & Dragons offered options to use dice to handle almost anything you might want to do in the game, from creating dungeons to determining which of twenty forms of insanity a character might develop if rendered insane, to figuring out what might happen if you mixed a potion of invisibility with a philter of love.  More on this topic later in this series of posts.)

Later RPGs questioned the centrality of dice in the game, with many seeking to reduce randomness, and some eliminating it entirely in favor of some mix of gamemaster and player dictate.  Often this came from the desire for stronger storytelling:  both gamemasters and players rebelled at having a story shredded by a particularly ill-timed lucky (or unlucky) roll.  But most RPGs kept dice.  Why?

One reason is that dice can be exciting.  Randomness – uncertainty – creates tension and variety.  This is pretty obvious!

But a second reason is that randomness helps enhance the sense that the RPG is a simulation of reality.  RPGs inevitably seek, to varying degrees, to simulate some version of reality, some cosmos.  In the real world, we are used to the idea that our actions will not always succeed or have perfectly predictable results.  The abstraction of the die roll provides a simple path to creating the same situation for our characters and their foes.  It’s easier to imagine ourselves into the bodies of our characters when we can’t know if they will succeed or fail within the larger world.

Additionally, as simulations, RPGs must handle a huge variety of possible actions, situations, and outcomes.  The RPG must be able to provide appropriate results depending on whether your warrior is trying to hit a cowering kobold, a veteran swordsman, an ancient dragon, or a deity (!).  Probability is a great mechanism here, expanding success from a simple digital yes-no to an analog range.  Boardgames cover a vastly smaller set of situations; with a simple possibility space comes the possibility of using simpler tools for resolving actions.

So die rolling is good, right?  Hold on there, sparky!  If there’s one thing any game designer, in any genre, knows, it’s that too much randomness – too much of that uncertainty mentioned above – can spoil the game-playing aspect of a game.  Players want to have control, too; they want to feel that their skill has an effect on the outcome of the game.  RPGs are funny beasts in many ways, and one is the tension they experience between giving players the unpredictability and simulationism enabled by die-rolling, and the desire to exert control.  Mess up this equation, and your game will become less fun.

What’s more, dice rolling takes time.  Every die roll involves a wait, and potential distraction from the flow of the game as a player digs for dice, adds up the results, and the roll gets checked against various charts and sheets to produce an outcome.  Such is not a concern with computer games, but you can bet that card and board game designers worth their salt take this sort of thing into account.

Having looked at some theory behind randomness in RPGs, we can next look at how randomness has evolved in RPGs over time – and what it looks like for today’s CRPGs.  That will be the topic of the next post in this series.

The many forms of “We rule!”

Derek’s post a couple days ago on “I rule!” versus “That rules!” got me to thinking, which is always a dangerous and frightening prospect. While thinking back on my own “I rule/That rules!” experience, it suddenly struck me that my very best experiences in multiplayer role playing games have always come from two very different approaches to “We rule!”

On the one hand, we have the MMO raid endgame experience. There is nothing like 25 voices screaming in victory after taking down a raid boss that the guild has been throwing itself at over and over again for weeks. Progression raiding is painful. It’s frustrating. It’s time consuming. It can tear guilds apart. And it is one of the best video game experiences out there when you finally succeed.

On the other hand, there is the group of role players I am currently tabletop gaming with. We are the Most. Dysfunctional. Party. Ever. Our mage has a charisma of 2, but will take any opportunity upon meeting new friends or foes alike (‘friends’ in this case being defined as NPCs we haven’t made ‘foes’ of yet) to bring out his magic box which will announce to the world that he is “HARWIN THE MAGNIFICENT!” One of our fighters is a greedy halfling, who in his finest hour discovered that the urn he was hauling tightly in his arms back to town to figure out how to open was actually a trap: on our way out of the dungeon the urn evaporated, leaving dear Merbles covered in green slime. The bad kind. Our priest has a relationship with the bottle that can only be described as masterful. But even more important in understanding his personality is to realize he…ah…absconded with the robes and holy symbol he currently wears from a fellow traveler on the roads. He has no idea which deity is answering his prayers (and for our party, we need a great many prayers), but some higher power is indulging his adjurations…at least for now.

I round out the group as our second fighter, a dwarf named Lars the Epithetless, who fancies himself something of a strategist. He almost never gets to enact any great plans due to his fellow party members’ tendency to rush into the next room swords and spells blazing, but last session he finally had his chance to shine. The party had come to a halt in front of a door behind which was a room teeming with rats. Behind us was a room full of caltrops we had picked our way through earlier. 15 minutes of excited scheming and trap setting later, Lars launched into action—the final result of which was a horde of nonplussed rats, Lars’s feet riddled with rat-poop-covered caltrops (cure disease, anyone? no? lovely…) and the nasty monster who was master of this corner of the dungeon alerted to our presence. It was the best role playing I’ve done in weeks.

Our party is terrible. But at the same time, we rule! Because playing these horribly inept adventurers is hilarious. Managing to get out of every mess we’ve made for ourselves so far has actually been something of a two-edged sword. We were never supposed to make it to level 2. Months later, now that we’re approaching level 4, I must admit, I’ll be sad when we eventually end up getting ourselves killed by plunging into the middle of more than we can handle. But that won’t change how we play this group, because that’s who these characters are.

This second form of ruling—the ability to craft a fun player-based narrative, even if it is by playing incompetent characters—is something you don’t see much in single player RPGs. It’s out there, though, if you can find it. One of my biggest “I rule!/That rules!” moments in playing Mass Effect 2 happened during one of the cutscenes. For those not familiar, if you progress far enough in either the “paragon” or “renegade” options for your character, sometimes you have the opportunity to interrupt a cutscene to your benefit. The character I was playing was primarily a paragon, though she would occasionally show traits that could be considered “renegade” under stressful situations. During one particular cutscene, a renegade interrupt became available to my character. But it just didn’t fit her character, so with great difficulty (as a player), I let the opportunity to interrupt the scene pass. Later in the same cutscene, a paragon interrupt opportunity appeared, which my character did activate. It was awesome! It was perfect! By being true to my character and keeping a cool head, I let a chance to be a nasty sort of character pass, and I was given the chance to influence the narrative in a more virtuous manner. The result was both an “I rule!” and “That rules!” moment at the same time. BioWare managed to outdo itself again by supporting this kind of gameplay opportunity, and I was thrilled that I had discovered it. At the same time, I was able to keep my character true to the personality I had crafted for her, which made the moment “rule” for me in an entirely different way.

In the end, I’m not sure how well the MMO style of ruling and the narrative crafting/role playing style of ruling can coexist. As I wrote in the comment section of Derek’s post, an MMO raider serious about progressive raiding isn’t going to be worried about whether his character’s arachnophobia should be decreasing his competence against the spider boss, nor would his teammates appreciate him playing that encounter “in-character” by /cowering in the corner during the entire fight. On the other hand, a munchkin/rules lawyer tabletop player may not be seen as the optimal partymate for a group of gamers who are injecting a lot of player-based narrative into a gaming session. Therefore, as game designers, one of the challenges we face is determining what type of gameplay experience we’re trying to build in our game and make sure that the content we’re producing allows that type of experience to shine.

“I rule!” vs. “That rules!”

On her blog Creating Passionate Users, game developer and author Kathy Sierra has often written about the need for products to create an “I rule!” experience for their users. And at their best, the web’s most popular apps do just that: Facebook makes us feel more connected, Twitter more popular, Basecamp more productive.

Those products are designed primarily for utility. For products that are meant to entertain, however, the intended reaction is less “I rule!” than “That rules!” We might get lost in the action of a movie or empathize with the protagonist of a novel, but the experience doesn’t need to leave us feeling more powerful for it to be compelling.

Part of what makes game development so challenging, I’ve recently realized, is that games can provoke both types of reactions. Intuitive and responsive controls, a steady increase in difficulty, a satisfying conclusion: these elements add up to an “I rule!” experience for players. Story and aesthetics, on the other hand, are key to provoking a “That rules!” reaction. The difficulty isn’t just that we need to worry about both goals when creating games; the goals themselves are sometimes at odds. Games that spend too much time in cutscenes, for example, risk making the player feel like a passive observer no matter how well written and rendered they are. And satisfying the player’s desire to rule often places constraints on the stories that we can tell or how we tell them: an unexpected death can be a powerful moment, but not if it causes the player to quit the game in frustration.

Considering the need for games to strike a balance between “That rules!” and “I rule!”, it’s not too surprising that some have trouble seeing games as art. Done well, a game is both art and application, art and not-art — and that’s one of the things that makes creating a good one so rewarding.

What’s wrong with Civ V?

I’m a long-time fan of the Civilization games, old enough to remember playing a cracked copy of the original Civ games on the university computers while in high school. (Yes, I pay for all my games now, thanks for asking.) When a new iteration of Civilization comes out, it’s a joyous event: not quite Christmas, but bigger than Halloween, y’know? So when I got my sweaty palms on Civ V, it was with a great deal of anticipation.

Developing a game doesn’t leave you with much time to play other games – one of those ironies they don’t tell you about. But I’ve managed to sneak in enough time with Civ V to end up… a little disappointed. Not such that I won’t play, or enjoy myself while doing so, but I’m not enthralled, not yet. Civ 2 and Civ 4, I each played for five years, all the way through until the next version came out. Civ 3, I played for maybe six months. There’s a danger Civ 5 will be another Civ 3 for me.

Why? What’s the problem? Did they simplify too many things, or the wrong things? Maybe, but I think it’s something else. I think it’s the vaunted new combat system – or, more precisely, the secondary consequences of that system.

One of the largest changes to Civ V is the elimination of stacked units. Now, each combat unit occupies a space that cannot be shared with any other unit. This, combined with the introduction of hex spaces, pushes the game into the tactical realm inhabited primarily by war games. And it does make the combat more interesting, on a per-engagement basis.

However, to make this work, each civilization needs to end up with an army that is much smaller on a per-unit basis than was common for any prior Civ game. There’s just not room on the map for them otherwise, and presumably they also wanted to limit the amount of time players needed to spend each turn just moving their armies around the board. Instead, you have tougher units, and more attacking and withdrawing and so on.

At least, that’s the theory. And sometimes it works out okay, and you get nice consequences, like more “leveling” of units as they survive and gain experience. But the big problem is that this means they need to make each unit more expensive to field. Creating an up-to-tech unit takes much longer in Civ V than in previous versions, and costs a whole lot of schmuckers to buy outright.

Okay, so what? Well, if we push further down the train of consequences, we get to this ugly one: if you defeat your enemy’s initial forces, they can’t rebuild in time for it to matter (unless the enemy is very large). As a result, it’s all about the early battles. Win those, and you will collapse the enemy’s empire and take it all for yourself. There’s a middle ground, but it is small.

Civ IV, by contrast, had both small and large wars. A number of things worked against large-scale conquering: the slow process of assimilating new cities, the effects of culture on newly-acquired border cities, war unhappiness, the ability to manufacture reinforcements reasonably quickly, and the ability to stack units in cities (which not only protected those cities, but also kept the reinforcements safe until there were enough of them to meet the enemy in the field). Civ V only has unhappiness penalties for new cities (and it doesn’t matter whether you are at war or not, so this is not a disincentive to further warring), and some policy and wonder bonuses available to boost combat prowess within one’s own borders – which won’t matter once you’ve lost your army.

And that’s really too bad, because it eliminates a whole dimension of gameplay, and makes the game swingy: be the first to bash another Civ’s head in, and you have a big leg up on the rest of the game.

Civ V gets a lot of other things right, particularly the addition of city-states, which are a huge and clever innovation that adds both to the mechanical gameplay, and to the realism factor in the game. And I will continue to play it, with some measure of happiness. But the main thing I’ve come away with is a renewed appreciation for the potential for unintended, second- or third- or nth-order consequences in the complex, dynamic system that is a game (especially one with as many variables as a Civ game). Something to watch out for.

Opening the black box

Many computer games are adaptations of a real-world gaming experience. Role-playing games, board games, card games, war games: all of these have made the leap from paper to computer, often many times over. But just as a good translation of a work of fiction or poetry is no small task, a good adaptation of the real-world game ain’t trivial. Far from it.

A sneaky problem is one we can call the “Black Box Problem”. Here’s the gist of it: Sometimes, when you take a game mechanic from a real-world game, and move it to the computer, the computer handles the mechanic for you. This turns up a lot in role-playing games, where the computer typically takes on the role of game master – but it’s far from restricted to the RPG world. And once you start hiding those mechanics, players run into problems.

To take a non-RPG example: The hit Magic trading card game came out in an online version many years after the original game was produced. Despite a frustrating interface and problems with outages, the service flourished. So what’s the most common complaint you hear in the Magic chat rooms? ”The shuffler cheats!” Here’s the problem: in Magic, you get a random hand of cards each time you sit down to play a game. Sometimes, that hand lacks a critical resource (“land” cards), or contains too many of them. You are at a major disadvantage with a hand like this. Get too many such hands in a row, and you get frustrated. In real life, there’s nobody to blame: you shuffled your own cards, you felt and saw it happen, and know that a bad hand was just unfortunate luck (or possibly not enough shuffling on your part). But online, the shuffling happens for you. And so if you see that streak of bad hands, your human pattern-matching mind can quickly go that place of deciding that Something Is Wrong… what is it? That black box shuffler!

RPGs are much more prone to this problem because the computer has more responsibility for managing the game experience and mechanics. This is particularly true if the RPG uses virtual “die-rolling” to decide whether players and their foes are succeeding or failing at their actions, from attacking to dealing damage to using skills. If the interface hides the die-rolling, and a player sees too many failures or successes in a row, he or she can easily end up drawing the wrong conclusions about why those failures or successes are happening.

Another common – and related – Black Box Problem in RPGs is hiding what factors are influencing conflict resolution. Does flanking my foe help with my attacks on him? What about being hidden? Am I a worse shot when firing at range? In melee? Does the rain help my stealth? Hurt my climbing? Which of my foes is better protected against my attacks? How do I know and learn this stuff? Paper RPGs have lots of ways to convey the answers: a rulebook (and one which players actually read), verbal descriptions of monsters and situations, being able to count on a good gamemaster to take the situation into account in the same way you do… and the chance to ask the gamemaster what will happen. All of these things are harder with a computer, and some impossible.

How you solve this problem in your computer RPG is up to you. Some games get very “open kimono”, showing % chances to hit, specific die rolls, and so on. That’s a fine approach, if your game is more about tactics than roleplaying, and if you are okay with not having the ability to hide much from players. But numbers tend to detract from the roleplaying experience for players, so consider using them with discretion. A description, like “excellent” or “difficult” can convey critical information without damaging verisimilitude. And sometimes you do want to hide information; sometimes, you have good reason to do so. The important thing is to be aware of the tradeoffs you are making between giving players the feedback they need to learn and play your game well – meaning that they feel mastery of their experience – and using hidden information to create dramatic surprises and suspense.

The many games of Dragon Age

As was briefly touched on in an earlier post, Electronic Arts made the interesting decision when the launch of Dragon Age: Origins was imminent to release a free Flash-based game set in the same world called Dragon Age Journeys. Looking back on both the Flash-based and retail game now, it’s clear that both had a lot of shared background. The races, classes, and world history are all the same. Many of the abilities and the philosophies of combat were very similar. When discussing RPGs, that covers a lot of the bases.

And yet, in the end, the two games were so very different. Most of the people I’ve talked to who tried out Dragon Age Journeys didn’t find the game very engaging, and I’m afraid I didn’t either. Despite a multitude of abilities and some pretty sophisticated AI for a Flash game, the combat felt repetitive. The story felt thin. There just wasn’t enough to pull the player along.

The retail game, Dragon Age: Origins, was as we know almost the polar opposite experience. The story was fantastic, as is only to be expected from a Bioware RPG. The combat was always engaging, even 60 (or *cough* 80) hours into the game. Where in the Flash game it was, alas, difficult to keep pushing forward, the retail game was hard to put down. For those of us that study game design, it’s a valuable lesson.

But it was when the retail game came out for both the PC and the console that the story gets really interesting. These games tell the exact same story (if you played the same character in each one) with more or less the exact same graphics. Leading one to think that if they were to play the game on the console or on the PC, they would be playing the same game. But they would be wrong.

I had the chance to play a little bit of Dragon Age for the XBox 360 after beating the game on the PC. It’s an entirely different experience. The difference is in the combat engine, and it is dramatic. With the PC, you have at least 12 abilities at your disposal directly on the screen (more when you figure out that you can drag your action bar to expose more action slots–which I didn’t until after I had beaten the game and I will never forgive Bioware for ever ever ever…but I digress), 10 of which are hotkeyed. For the more restrictive console interface, you never have more than 6 actions available without having to bring up other screens in the middle of combat. The PC version allows the player to zoom the camera out until it (very elegantly) shifts from over-the-shoulder to top-down perspective for a better view of the entire battle. In the console version, you’re locked into the active character’s perspective (though you can hop from character to character in your party).

Essentially, combat in the PC version is a much more tactical experience, and this is by design. When I played the console version, I did my best to navigate the console UI to have my character be of some meager use in battle (I’m not very good at console games). The AI took care of the rest, and we were fine. If I tried to play such a weaksauce party in the PC version, we would have been annihilated. The PC version requires the player to frequently pause the game to direct their entire party. If you don’t, you will die. Think that group of genlocks and hurlocks up ahead should be easy enough to plow through on autopilot? Not on the PC: if you don’t pause and control your party in every single fight–especially in the early levels–you will die. It was hard. It was fun! For whatever reason, the Dragon Age team didn’t feel like they could or should replicate the experience on the console version, so they made the fights significantly easier. You can, in fact, more or less coast through the game on the console (at least as far as I have played). I found it made for a less powerful–and in the end less fun–experience. It’s remarkable how these games with so much in common, especially the different retail releases, can feel so different when you sit down to play them.

What we're playing: Osmos

A game is a closed, formal system that engages players in structured conflict and resolves in an unequal outcome.

Tracy Fullerton, Chris Swain, and Steven Hoffman

Ask ten game designers what a game is, and you’ll likely hear ten definitions.  But if there’s a game that embodies this one, it’s Osmos, a downloadable indie game in which you control one cell-like mote among many drifting in a Petri-dish-like environment.

The mechanics of the game are simple: a mote moves by ejecting a bit of its mass as a smaller mote behind it, and when two motes come into contact, the larger begins to absorb the smaller.  The combination of these mechanics creates some fun situations.  Two of my favorites:

  • When fleeing from a larger mote, your ejected material will often end up making it a bigger threat in the process.
  • When you make a course correction near a wall, you can sometimes reabsorb ejected motes as they rebound.

I can’t think of a recent game that better fits the definition of Fullerton et al.: the bounded environment and strict conservation of mass embody a closed, formal system, while absorption-by-contact is a quintessentially unequal outcome of a structured conflict.

I don’t want to give the impression that Osmos is more academic experiment than actual entertainment, though.  It’s also a viscerally enjoyable game, with evocative graphics and a soothing ambient soundtrack.  I’m not sure it’ll have a lot of replay value, but Hemisphere Games is offering it for download for the price of a movie ticket, which strikes me as a good deal.

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