Tuesday 2 July 2019

Following the Vanishing Path

How does post-release DLC affect the intended experience of a game?

These days, almost every AAA game receives some kind of post-release DLC (downloadable content). They can vary hugely, from huge expansions to the game and new levels to play through, down to alternate costumes or animations to add some variety and fun. Whilst players were initially sceptical of the idea, and there were some fairly egregious examples of companies abusing this arrangement (just Google 'Oblivion horse armour' or 'Prince of Persia Epilogue') it's now become an integral part of the gaming landscape and on the whole, I think we're better-off for it.

Understandably, developers cater these post-launch experiences to their most loyal customers: the people who are already playing (or have even finished) the game. Since a lot of the time this is content people paid extra for, most games will go out of their way to highlight the new stuff as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, the combination of these two factors means that the experience for new players can be weird and confusing. There is a central contradiction at work: DLC is almost always intended to be end-game content, something new for players who have already seen everything, but the game will try to direct the player towards it as soon as possible. Thus a player starting the game fresh with all the DLC installed will often reach a point in the game when they start getting mixed signals from the designers. Should the player continue on the original path of the vanilla game, or branch off into the more advanced stuff that came later?

This problem is exacerbated by the rise of 'Game of the Year Edition' versions of games, usually released roughly a year after the game's original launch, which pack all the game's DLC content together with the base game for the same price as the original release. Due to how quickly games get discounted, a couple of years after a game first comes out it's almost always possible to buy a version of the game with 100% of the released content built in for a fraction of the original cost. During the latest Steam Summer Sale, for example, I was able to pick up Borderlands 2 and Borderlands: The Presequel with all their DLC for 97% off the original price! I buy far more games this way than on day one, and I'd be willing to bet that a lot of other people do too.

Different games manifest the conflict between the original path and DLC in different ways. Folding new content into a pre-existing game poses some challenges, and developers have variously struggled to do it in an elegant way. Fallout 3 came up with the novel, in-world idea of having mysterious radio broadcasts guide players to the new content. Whilst this works great for people who have already been exploring the game's wasteland for tens of hours, the system backfires when it comes to new players leaving the starting area for the first time. Stepping out of Vault 101 is a very important moment in the game, the point where the sheer scope of the world is revealed to the player. In the vanilla game it strikes a clever emotional balance, a cooling breath of fresh air and a wide open vista contrasting the claustrophobia and desperate struggle to escape the vault. The player is given no instructions, just the objective of finding the player character's father and the space to explore the world stretching out before them.

In the Game of the Year Edition, players barely have time to admire the skybox before being bombarded with multiple radio signals pulling their attention in all different directions, most of which they are severely under-equipped to visit just yet. The original feeling of freedom and open-endedness that excited and intimidated players is swept away by a tide of notifications, like returning to your work email inbox after a week's vacation.

A lot of games don't even bother to come up with an in-world way of serving the new content. The opening of Rise of the Tomb Raider is an exciting, dynamic scene in which Lara Croft becomes separated from her companion in the mountains and must find shelter and light a campfire to survive the night. In the Tomb Raider games, the campfires are the checkpoints at which you can do things like level up and unlock new abilities and gear. Thus it was quite jarring after having Lara struggle through the snow, barely surviving the biting cold, to discover that because of the DLC that came with the Game of the Year Edition, she was already carrying half a dozen outfits, some relating to the people of the region that I had yet to explore (see the screenshot above).

These content packs not only break the immersion and flow of the game's story but can also disrupt the game's design. Those DLC packs I owned for Rise of the Tomb Raider came with numerous gameplay benefits like stronger weapons or crafting bandages without using any resources, which is going to change the difficulty and progression curve. Games dole out rewards and abilities slowly as the player gets more familiar with the system, and designers spend countless hours finely tuning this progression: giving the player these special items right out of the gate throws the whole thing off the rails. Imagine if Metal Gear Solid gave the player the stealth camouflage which makes you invisible to enemies on the first playthrough! I specifically decided not to use any of the bonus content in Rise of the Tomb Raider so I could enjoy the 'original' experience as much as possible, which is not something that a brand-new player should need to think about.

This problem isn't going away any time soon, and will only get worse as games embrace the service model and expand their post-release content schedule. The launch version of the game becomes an increasingly small slice of what the game even is. Over a long enough time-frame the population of players who own the Game of the Year Edition will start to become larger than the day-one players, and yet the original intended path for them to walk will be completely lost under the weight of all the bonuses and add-ons.

I hope that developers will start to think about these problems from the start and try to design the path to their DLC in a more elegant way. There are already some good examples of developers avoiding these pitfalls. I deeply respect the designers of Dark Souls for simply adding its DLC to the game world and expecting the player to figure out where it is, but then being obtuse and mysterious is Dark Souls' modus operandi. Other games like The Witcher 3 take a slightly friendlier approach, still sprinkling the new content into the world in a natural way, but also tucking instructions on how to find it unobtrusively into the game's glossary system, and giving larger expansions a slightly different visual treatment on the game map so that they stand out.

DLC has transformed the gaming environment and given creators a new avenue to tell stories and stretch their creative muscle even after the game is finished. I'd just like a bit more thought to be given to those of us who play most games well after the initial release, and may struggle to find that original path that the designer intended us to take.

Wednesday 26 June 2019

Digital Tools for Pen & Paper

Tools of the trade from a sophomore dungeon master

Last year I took my first steps into the world of Dungeons and Dragons by diving into the deep end (there's a mixed metaphor for you!) and running my own campaign for a group of friends and family. As someone who feels a deep need to create but suffers from a lack of artistic talent, it's been an extremely rewarding experience. Back in April, after eight sessions of roughly four hours each, my band of heroes managed to defeat the menace lurking within The Sunless Citadel and conclude the first chapter of my planned three-part campaign.

Something I wasn't fully prepared for was the level of organisation that is required from a Dungeon Master. Even using a pre-made adventure like Sunless Citadel, there is still a huge amount of information to keep straight in an average session. I am absolutely in awe of Dungeom Masters of yore who had to do it all without a laptop behind their DM screen! As I prepare for chapter two I thought I would share some of the digital tools that I've been using to make my job as DM easier, including some new things that are helping me build my first full adventure from scratch.

Story, Characters and Setting

As you can probably imagine, I make extensive use of Google Drive when managing a D&D campaign. As someone who very much feels the burden of beginning a task, having all my materials at my fingertips wherever I go is essential. Having all my campaign notes in Google Docs means that if inspiration strikes I'm usually just a couple of clicks away from being able to jot it down. Early on I copied a technique from the source book and assigned a specific font style to things that should be read aloud versus things to keep quiet.

I created a template for character stat blocks that gives me everything I need about them including base stats, armour class, hit points and so on as well as a space for notes about their personality when appropriate. For the new chapter I'm creating I added the area to note down physical appearance and personality traits to try and focus on making characters that are memorable. Here's Maurice, the first NPC my players encountered:

Human Man (Commoner)
AC: 10 HP: 8 SP: 30
S: 10 D: 10 C: 10 I: 10 W: 10 C: 10
Passive Perception: 10
Knife: +2 to hit, 1d4 piercing dmg
Sneak attack: Extra 1d6 dmg when attacking
with advantage
Hair: Black, Eyes: Brown, Skin: Pale
Distinguishing Features: Shaggy hair, shabby clothes, stubble
Personality: Mistrustful, Dishonest, Cowardly
Petty thief
Doesn’t like looking people in the eye, considers himself a perpetual victim

I also used a table like the one below to give quick access to details about towns. I don't know if I'll actually use this format for chapter two since the locations I'm creating are much bigger, but it might prove useful.

Pop: 500, Forestry, Hunting, Some Farming
General Store
Limited selection, can buy food and simple items. Proprietor Ernest Slimpkin
The Boar (Inn)
Sign shows a boar’s head with an apple in its mouth. Food, ale. Landlady Fiona Morgan
Two guards on duty at any given time, total of six, report to Felosial, constable of Oakhurst
Town square
Well with cross-beam and bucket

A technique I'm trying out for the new campaign is the Google Docs bookmark function. In The Sunless Citadel I had all the character blocks in the same document as the long-form text describing the story beats. This made it easy to get information about a character in the first instance that they appeared, because the table was nearby, but as we got deeper into the story I found myself having to jump around a lot to look up details that might be pages back. For recurring enemies (spoilers, there are a LOT of skeletons in The Sunless Citadel) I ended up having multiple copies of the same stat block throughout the document just so I wouldn't lose my place. Bookmarks allow you to create a link that jumps directly to a specific paragraph in a doc, meaning that I can now have a separate file for all my character blocks that can be easily cross-referenced by the main story doc. If combat requires skeletons, I can create a hyperlink on the word 'skeletons' and now they're just a click away! I anticipate this will be useful for a lot of other things too.


A big problem I faced in my early sessions was how to keep myself organised when running a combat encounter. With five player characters, up to three friendly NPCs and God-knows how many enemies in a given battle, it was a real challenge to keep up with everything that was happening. To solve this problem I created a Google Sheet with columns for everything I needed: initiative, hit points, who NPCs are targeting, if there are any status effects on them and what their AC is. A bit of messing around with the script editor even allowed me to have the list automatically sort itself by initiative. I've included a link to a shareable version of the sheet at the bottom of this section.

Also in that spreadsheet is a tool for calculating the Challenge Rating of a battle. The Dungeon Master's Guide has a highly detailed method for working out how difficult a given combat encounter will be, so I transcribed the logic into something that I can quickly input all the friendly characters and their levels in to and then tweak the types and number of enemies on the fly until I get the desired rating. It has already saved me a lot of time!

Link to Battle Sheet Template


Maps wasn't something I had to deal with in The Sunless Citadel because the introduction to the story didn't require them, and the specifics of the dungeons were provided in the book. Now, though, I'm creating my own dungeons, and the non-dungeon spaces are going to be much larger and more detailed. This makes it important to at least have a rough map so I know where all these locations are relative to each other.

Once again, my needs are for an online tool that allows me to pick it up quickly and have all my edits sync wherever I am. A bit of research online has lead me to Sketchpad, which offers not only a healthy array of tools for making maps, but also Google Drive integration and auto-saving. It even allows you to create sketches with a square grid as the background, which is going to be awesome for dungeon mapping!

This is my first time creating an adventure whole-cloth, and I'm sure over the years my approach will develop and improve as I discover new problems to be solved. Right now I'm just very excited because I have discovered some cool online tools that are going to allow me to do a lot more for this new story. I hope other aspiring DMs find this helpful, and if you have your own tips and tricks feel free to share them in the comments!

Wednesday 19 June 2019

Getting Back Into Gears

After feeling lukewarm about Gears of War 4 when it came out, I'm surprised to find it sucking me in as I revisit it in anticipation of the sequel.

I have been a fan of the Gears of War franchise ever since the first one truly kicked off the HD era of games way back in 2006. Gears of War 2 is, and probably will remain, one of my favourite games of all time. I spent what must have been hundreds of hours playing with my friends in Horde, the wave-based cooperative survival mode that sparked countless imitators. Gears of War 3 continued the series' upward trajectory, layering complexity on top of Horde, introducing the novel reverse-Horde mode 'Beast', and brought the story to a satisfying conclusion. When I packed away my consoles from that generation, the Gears of War trilogy was part of a mere handful of games that I held on to.

Franchises being handed to a new developer is a double-edged sword. Successful series can become a creative burden on a studio even as they bolster their financial security, and a fresh take on a familiar idea has potential. But oftentimes the result is simply the new studio hitting the bullet points of what fans expect. Gears of War had already undergone something like this: when Microsoft needed a stop-gap game as the 360/PS3 generation dragged on longer than anticipated and the true next gen games were still far off. Gears of War: Judgement, handed off to the studio People Can Fly, was so poorly received that I never bought it. Even a studio with a proven track record like People Can Fly can sometimes struggle to take the reins on a much-beloved series.

Thus, Gears of War 4 had a lot to prove. Microsoft had completely taken over the IP from Epic and had assigned the game to Black Tusk Games, newly rebranded as The Coalition to highlight that this was the Gears developer from now on. I was excited and played the game at launch on my PC, using the game as an excuse to upgrade my graphics card in the process, since Nvidia were giving the game away for free when you bought a GTX 1080. I played through the campaign, had a couple of Horde matches with my friends and then... dropped the game and never looked back.

Whilst I had a good time with the game, it didn't leave much of a lasting impression. The campaign was fun and whilst some of the set pieces were spectacular and there were plenty of good callbacks to the old games, they didn't stick with me. The added depth and progression systems of Horde 3.0 promised something new, but the slow pace of levelling up and exploitative loot box and card system pushed me away. Overall the whole thing felt safe, because it was just more Gears of War with better graphics. Protagonist JD Fenix, son of original protagonist Marcus, was symptomatic of this problem. A carbon copy of what had come before but with Marcus' gruffness replaced with snark.

It was only right at the end of the game that things got interesting. My lasting impression of the game is the way the story ends: a ridiculous climax which has you piloting a giant robot, followed by some seismic revelations about the nature of the world regarding humans and their meaty, insectoid foes.

Recently, in an effort to spend more time connecting with my online friends and because Gears 5 is on the horizon, I've dipped back into Gears 4, and I'm actually stunned at how much more I'm enjoying it. I don't know if they rebalanced the levelling curves but now I'm advancing extremely fast through the multiplayer ranks. The new Horde Lite playlist makes it much easier to play the game without having to dedicate an entire evening to a single match. I finally figured out that I could scrap the cards I didn't want to craft something I did (and I've been playing as Colonel Hoffman ever since!)

I'm also playing through the storyline again and having a much, much better time. And I think I understand why. The ending of Gears 4, and everything that has been shown of Gears 5 so far, indicates that it's outsider Kait, not bland son-of-the-first-guy JD, who is the main character of this new story. In a franchise that took way, way too long to introduce female playable characters it's very encouraging that she is becoming the focus, rather than just a side character. Knowing that the story of Gears 4 is actually leading somewhere, that it's not just "Hey, the grubs are back for some reason" makes it far more interesting.

Suddenly I find myself very excited about Gears again, more so than I have in quite some time. Last week at E3 Coalition revealed their new three-player coop mode Escape which looks interesting, and I'm really hoping that the last few years of players voicing their dislike of loot boxes will prompt them to come up with something better and make it less painful or expensive for me to play as Colonel Hoffman. Edit: The day after I published this post, Coalition published this article on the official website explaining that content will no longer be earned through random loot boxes. Yay!

Gears 5 is coming soon, and this time I'll be ready!

Thursday 6 June 2019

Why I'm Excited About Darksiders Genesis

This morning we were treated to a teaser trailer for a new Darksiders game. At this point I'm frankly surprised that this franchise still exists, but I'm most certainly not complaining. I have loved all of the entries in this odd-ball series, which casts the player as one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse and pits them against the forces of heaven and hell, but there have been multiple reasons for the people involved to stop making them over the years.

The first game was released in 2010, featuring the gorgeous, gothic, heavy metal fantasy artwork of legendary comic book creator Joe Madureira and was very well received. The second game was also well received but less so, but more importantly didn't live up to the lofty expectations and loftier marketing budget of publisher THQ, who promptly went bankrupt the same year and seemingly took the rights to the franchise with them. The third game was a surprise announcement from the completely-not-related-to-the-old-company THQ Nordic, and whilst I really enjoyed it it left a lot of players disappointed by its stripped-down scale. Until this morning I was fairly confident that we would never see a Darksiders 4.

It's hard to tell if Darksiders Genesis is supposed to be Darksiders 4 or just a spin-off. The top-down perspective is a clear departure from the previous games, which were all third-person action adventures, but one of the hallmarks of this series is that its genre is fluid. Darksiders 1 borrowed heavily from the Legend of Zelda with its dungeons and item-based puzzle solving.  Darksiders 2 took things in a more action RPG direction with procedurally generated, rarity coloured loot. Darksiders 3 saw the series try its hand at being a Souls-like with a heightened focus on difficult combat and the need to collect resources dropped on death. The new game does appear to star Strife, the last of the four horsemen still waiting for his own game, and video game publishers do tend to get squeamish once you start putting numbers higher than '3' on products they hope to sell.

Edit: The official Darksiders Facebook page has confirmed that Genesis is a spin-off

Weirdly enough things seem to have come full-circle for Darksiders. The cliff-hanger ending of Darksiders 1, in which protagonist War proudly proclaims that in the coming war he will be "not alone" before revealing the other three horsemen swooping in out of the sky, left people excitedly speculating about a four-player cooperative game as a follow-up. The trailer above features Strife prominently, but War's bulky frame is easily discernible. Hell, Strife even calls back to that famous "not alone" line. I'm hoping that Fury and Death also make an appearance and we get the full four-player co-op experience, but so far only two players have been shown.

Not only that, but development of Genesis is being handled by Airship Syndicate, co-founded by Madureira himself, and based on my quick Internet research he still works there. Joe hasn't worked on a Darksiders title since the first game, and having now read some of his books I'm excited to see him back. The company's first game BattleChasers: Nightwar (based on Madureira's comics) was an overlooked gem, featuring some ingenious new spins on turn-based combat and traditional JRPG mechanics, as well that that sumptuous, trademark art-style.

It leaves me hopeful that Darksiders Genesis will be a good game that gives people what they've wanted for almost a decade, and allow this franchise, which hooked me as soon as I saw an alpha build of the first game at PAX 2008, to continue to be its weird, disparate, ridiculous self for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday 5 June 2019

Learning Patience in the Darkest Dungeon

As soon as I saw Darkest Dungeon for the first time, it was a game that I desperately wanted to love. Its art style, evoking the sharp angles, thick outlines and rich, earthy pallet of the Hellboy comics, was immediately arresting. The melodious voice of The Ancestor, a continuous commentary throughout the players' delvings into the game's dungeons, delivered dialogue that teeters on the brink of absurdity with a plummy lexicon and dramatic tone. It creates an atmosphere that manages to be dread-filled without being oppressive; dark but inviting. As a long-time fan of this flavour of eldritch horror, as well as cool art and writing that uses words like 'antediluvian', I wanted to dive in straight away.

Aesthetics aside, Darkest Dungeon appealed to me because it caters to my idealised vision of what my video game playing looks like. As someone with a wonderfully full life, I simply don't have the time to spend hours every day playing games any more. Honestly, nor do I have the attention span for that. But there's a part of me deep down that is in love with the idea of having that kind of time or stamina. Disgaea, a game so sprawling in its scope that every weapon can become its own dungeon crawl, obsesses this part of my psyche and I've almost bought it on Steam more times than I can count. When I actually bought it on the PS2 years ago I didn't make it past the third mission, and yet it still pulls at me. Darkest Dungeon fits this archetype perfectly: a turn-based dungeon crawler in which heroes can permanently die, or be driven mad by the stresses you place them under, which can only be beaten by slowly building up your resources to tackle the brutally difficult final challenge: the Darkest Dungeon itself.

Unfortunately, with my time being in such limited supply, all I had managed to do was bounce off Darkest Dungeon a few times. I would sit down in front of my PC and begin a new campaign full of optimism and excitement: this time would be different. This time I would not let myself get overwhelmed and stick with it. This time I would fall in love. And every time, the game repelled me. Sometimes it was the setbacks and disappointment that are part and parcel of playing the game, but mostly it was because I could feel the weight of time pressing down on me. I would spend huge amounts of time between expeditions poking around the hamlet (the hub that allows the player to tend to their over-stressed heroes, upgrade facilities, and buy provisions for the next outing) trying to fully understand everything in order to optimise every single decision. What does it mean if a hero has weak knees? Is that worth treating over someone with kleptomania? How much food should I bring on a 'Medium' length mission? How many bandages? Who is most deserving of time in the tavern to relieve their stress? Is it worth upgrading my strongest crusader's skills to give me an edge in the next big push, knowing that if they die the money will have been wasted? Above anything else, crippling analysis paralysis is why I would always stop playing.

Clearly in order to get further into this game, I needed to take a more casual approach to playing it. An opportunity to do so presented itself when I was given the Switch version of the game for Christmas. Now I could play the game anywhere for as little or long as I wanted, able to suspend and resume the game at will (my favourite innovation for this generation of consoles). The mental hurdle of having to go to my desk, sit down, start up my computer, wait for Windows to start, then Steam, then wait for the game to load up....was gone! Along with this new beginning I made a conscious choice: I was going to allow myself to not understand everything. I was going to live in ambiguity and be bold enough to make choices to the best of my ability without spending hours poring over every button click. In short, I would be unafraid of failure.

This past weekend, I faced my greatest test. I pushed hard to defeat the Necromancer Apprentice, an early boss in the game. I came within a couple of turns of victory, when the stresses of their long crawl through the dungeon began to get the better of my heroes. One started to refuse the continuous healing spells that were keeping him alive under a merciless onslaught from the Necromancer's undead minions. Another started to hurl verbal abuse at his companions, resulting in both him and one more dying of heart attacks in consecutive rounds as the boss conjured visions of their grisly demises. Down to the last party member I tried to flee, tried to at least recover the thousands of gold pieces, precious stones and upgrade materials gathered on the long expedition, but she too fell. I was left with nothing to show for the previous 30 minutes except my four strongest heroes buried in the shallow graveyard of the hamlet. This was my first true taste of what Darkest Dungeon is supposed to be.

I will admit, after that happened I put down the Switch and sat staring into space for a while. I had just invested significant time in something and had managed to actually end up in a worse state than when I started. For my entire gaming career, I have always hated losing progress and done anything to avoid it. This was one of the points in the past where I would have just quit.

After a bit of soul searching, I hit upon the thing that would carry me forward: it was my new knowledge, the cruel intangible experience, that was my reward. I should have turned back earlier. I should have recognised that the battle was shifting away from my favour when the first hero died and cut my losses. Up until that point I had been cautious and it had paid off: on a previous run I encountered The Collector (a randomly spawning mini-boss who summons copies of your party members) two rooms ahead of where I had expected to find the Necromancer. I managed to defeat him, but the toll he had extracted meant it was obvious that I wouldn't stand a chance if I carried on. Yet when I saw the Necromancer's life bar at 20% I got greedy. I didn't want to spend another 30 minutes repeating the same dungeon for a third time. I wanted to beat him now, dammit! And for that greed and impatience, the game slapped me in the face and handed me not just another run through the same dungeon, but all the extra work necessary to get a new band of heroes up to the task of attempting it.

It isn't often that I learn a real life lesson from video games, but this is a very valuable one. To find the silver lining in failure: the growth opportunity in defeat. It's taking a lot of willpower, but I'm determined to follow through. I forced myself to push on on a new mission; to begin rebuilding what my lack of experience had cost me. Next time, I won't make the same mistake.

I'll definitely make other ones, but that's okay too...