How to Make a Boring Game | Transparency

I’d like to talk about a phenomena in gaming that anyone who grew up with a controller in their hands can relate to: sucking. Sucking isn’t actually the negative thing its made out to be in gaming, despite the inherent negative connotations made with the term. Sucking, or being bad, is a by product of being a newbie. Its the seed from which being passable and then talented comes from.

In modern game development, there has been a loss of artistic grit in the form of transparency. And by that I mean that the art of lacking transparency in just the right way is a practice modern game developers are leaving in the dust.

New World
Image via Amazon Games

Artistic Grit

To “lack transparency” in just the right way is to obfuscate, hide, or outright lie about information presented in a game to purposefully keep the player out of the know. For me, I think about Dark Souls 1 and its ability to have a complicated combat system that players can learn the basics of without spilling any of the deeper mechanics in an obvious way. Spell casting, for example, isn’t something that’s listed as having anything to do with dexterity, but absolutely does work in tandem with the attribute. Dexterity speeds up spell casting, and this is only something someone could know through self made trials (or data mining).

This is a very specific example, and a very bizarre one at that, given the mathematics behind the mechanics of the casting speed in DS1, but ultimately the specifics aren’t important for this discussion. What is important is the key takeaway: FromSoftware decided to hide specific information about the game from the player and let the studious among their fans find out the info for themselves.

For game developers, specifically, this is something I want to see more of. Patch notes, official game guides, in-game books and descriptions, and all of the information you can get in-game should function this way. They should be minor, incomplete, or non-existent altogether, at least in some regards.

A player shouldn’t be mapping out their game route before they’ve begun playing a game. And when developers show every little number and change in the game as they’re released, it feels like the game itself is becoming detached from the world its trying to pull its players into. Its no longer a separate entity to escape in, it’s a piece of art that’s not only stuck in the real world, but requires real world study to get the most out of before its even been played.

This philosophy I’m advocating for, which is a philosophy in favor of partially or completely hidden mechanics in-game, isn’t a philosophy that’s going to work for all games. And I completely understand that point. If tomorrow, Riot Games began releasing “secret” updates every week that changes the numbers of specific champs in League of Legends, I’d wager the uproar from the casual and competitive gaming community would be loud enough to force Riot to revert any and all changes immediately.

But for game developers who are creating pieces of art that are meant to be learned about in-game and in real-time, I’d like to offer a piece of advice, if I can be so bold: Act as if you’re developing an RPG / MMO that’s going to be played by millions of people every day, concurrently. Ask yourself, “Would I want to tell players that this is the META at this stage of the game? Would I want to disclose this mechanic? Would it be far more enjoyable for players to discover this on their own?” I hope the answers to these question outside of a competitive PvP game, is “No, No, and Yes, of course it would.

Transparency and the 2000’s

Image via “A Friend”

I remember playing OSRS back when it was just RS in 2007 and just walking around, having zero clue what I was doing. That not knowing made every little thing worth doing because I didn’t know if what I was doing was effective or not. “Is this fishing method the best XP/HR? Who knows? No one knows, so I don’t care.” That’s the mentality of a player who’s having fun, and that mentality only exists in ignorance.

There’s a reason people still talk about the 2000’s as the golden age for gaming, and I reckon it isn’t because developers have gotten worse at their jobs or because games are objectively less fun. I think its because gamers as a whole are able to cipher information about what they’re playing a lot easier, and when developers display that information and leave zero room for experimentation on the part of the player, the game in question becomes solved faster than developers can possibly keep up with.

The solution? Lose the transparency. Create games that obfuscate information. But provide players with the necessary tools to experiment with the mechanics of the game themselves: leave clues via NPC’s, dialogue, or other means to teach players about your game without handing them the keys to victory for little to no work. And if you as a developer can manage it, release updates that are either partially or completely secret. If you buff, nerf, or otherwise change something in game, let players know that something has been changed and watch them scurry about trying to find out what it is and how it effects the way they play. That, right there, is half the fun.

Games are fun. Games are especially fun when you’re bad at them. Stop giving me the tools to be decent at every game before I’ve had my fun with them and let me just be terrible for a while.

GLHF,
-E

Happy 20th Birthday to Morrowind | Near Perfection

I was a little late to the Morrowind party having only played it for the first time roughly three years ago, and I’m a little late to its birthday. The role playing game was released on the first of May, 2002, and made up what was the third title in the Elder Scrolls series. Its a game that’s not widely played in the gaming community, but it is certainly a game that’s widely praised. People who don’t really care for the game’s outdated mechanics, textbook levels of reading, or punishing (and tedious) combat system often refer to appeals of “It’s just not my type of game” arguments when explaining why they don’t like it. The number of people who would outright say its just not a good game are small in number, and that should tell you a lot about the weight the game holds in terms of respect out of the gaming community: Its just about beyond major criticism, culturally speaking.

Image via Reddit (u/danae123)

This doesn’t mean that the game is actually without its flaws to criticize, but it does mean that, generally speaking, the pros inside of the game’s inherent design are stronger than the cons. In fact, many people point towards a game like Morrowind when making arguments for why the early 2000’s were the “golden days of gaming.” It was a time when you couldn’t google a solution to every single problem you ran into when playing through a game, you had to just be bad at the game, can you believe it?

What this meant was that the tedious, confusing combat, the breakable mechanics, the quest lines with confusing directions, and all of the reading that came with that set of design choices were essential to the experience. In my first personal playthrough, for example, I found myself not only reading every single instruction given to me by quest givers, but also writing notes down: Cardinal directions, odd comments that may or may not have special meaning, maps, and dungeons I find along the way during my travels. I still have the notebook with all of that in there. And I wrote all that down despite there being an in-game notebook, not because I was going out of my way to role play, but because a game like Morrowind, of which there are few, if any, benefits greatly from the player acting as his or her own detective.

The in-game books, which a game like Skyrim. Morrowind’s younger brother, is so well known for, aren’t just extra flavor on an already completed game in Morrowind. There are textbooks detailing the inner workings of alchemy, which act as an in-game guide to the most broken skill in the game. There are journals of mages, alchemists, and warriors and their lives which give either nothing at all, or hints to the player regarding combat and the like. There are whole documentations in-game of all the gods and their cultures that the player can delve into. For lore? Sure. But also for in-game knowledge that translates into a stronger character.

I’m just spitballing some thoughts about the game out here, so this article isn’t going to be very coherent or streamlined, as you can see, but its probably the most prominent quality about the game: everything you need to know, you can find, research, and learn about in the actual game itself. No googling, no looking up guides, and no special addition developer notes required. Have a question? Look for a book seller in-game and find a book on the topic, read the whole fuckin’ thing and apply your new knowledge.

Stuck on a quest? Go back to the quest giver, ask ’em what to do, and write all of that down. Do everything they say to a T and, if you’re still stuck, its entirely possible they just gave you bad directions (seriously, they can do that.)

The game asks a lot of your time, but still respects it, which is an extraordinarily hard balancing act and one that a modern game, like Elden Ring (review coming soonish), simply cannot follow despite being nearly 20 years newer. All of the studying, walking, training, and reading is an investment in a game that rewards you by giving you greater and greater power. Not just power, but ways to break the game. The secret sauce being that the most powerful ways to become strong in the game is not by training your character, but by learning more and more about the game itself. That is to say, a newbie with maxed stats is infinitely weaker than a veteran starting at level 1 simply because, in Morrowind, mind beats matter. All the same, I’m sure many veterans would take being bad at the game for a chance at being able to play it all over again without prior knowledge of its inner workings.

So happy 20th, Morrowind. There may be many role playing games to come that try new things and advance the medium, but I doubt there will be any that are as nearly perfect, as special, as you. If we get something as half as good in the next decade, I’d say the gaming industry is doing alright.

GLHF,
-E

Inscryption is Hearthstone, But Infinitely Better

Inscryption is a great game that I haven’t finished. This article is a short review of my first impressions of it and nothing more. No spoilers ahead. If you haven’t played the game yet, take my advice and set this article aside until you have. Despite the lack of spoilers, I’m still going to touch on some of the magic that makes this game what it is, or what it has been so far. Perhaps not reading any of it is best if you want to keep the hints out of mind.

Inscryption’s Gameplay

Inscryption's gameboard
Image via Daniel Mullins Games

Never did I ever expect the gameplay of this rogue-like deck builder to have its narrative so closely tied to its gameplay. Sure, deck building games often build their worlds around the cards they produce, but none that I’ve played have ever had their cards specifically exist in the world that’s in the world or, more to the point, cards that change gameplay that’s within the gameplay.

Confused? Yeah, well, that’s Inscryption. According to the reviews, playing the game blind was the move, so I put my knife up and downloaded it not knowing what I was going to get myself into. The gameplay itself is reminiscent of the classic Magic the Gathering format tied in with Hearthstone-like mechanics: the game board reacts to you and your pieces and the horror atmosphere is knit like a sleeve against the gruesome nature of what you’re doing: playing a card game with trapped souls.

The gameplay feels like Hearthstone more than it does like Magic, despite the format being closer to the latter. Perhaps it’s because of the personality each card has, or maybe it’s the just a matter of habituation for me. In any case, this game plays like a Hearthstone that costs a flat 20 dollars instead of 100 dollars per expansion. And the content within it is far more satisfying to delve into (and far more fun, too, if that matters.) I say this as someone who reached rank 75 Legend in Hearthstone’s competitive ladder, not a casual who played the game for a month or two and left it alone: Inscryption is the better game in almost every objective sense.

Incryption’s Best Magic Trick | Perspective and Scope

Two attributes every game has, and often overlooks. Perspective is the “picture in the picture” to paraphrase. Its the view the player will have while playing, and what a developer crafts from day one. Its a literal perspective on the part of the player’s eyes, but also an idea of what lies ahead, crafted by the player’s brain using the ingredients a developer lays in front of him or her. The perspective a game offers up is encased within a genre, artwork, writing, and audio design. In Dark Souls, this perspective is thrown right in the face of the player as a form of helplessness brought on by a murky aesthetic and overwhelming difficulty. In Inscryption’s case, the perspective of helplessness and curiosity is brought to the player via a horror-like atmosphere and a collection of incomplete tales. Tales that the player is practically begged to follow up on: a suspicious character, a new line of dialogue or book entries, as well as hidden secrets that alter gameplay. They all work together to build what is essentially one big question: What does this game mean to tell me?

Inscryption's Horror
Image via Daniel Mullins Games

It would be so embarrassing, almost crude, to write the following sentence, but by default I am going to do it, and you can’t stop me: Inscyption is a page turner. Oof!

Ignoring the fact that the gameplay itself has an addictive quality to it that I’m going to chalk up to sheer craftsmanship on the part of the developers, this game forces you to continue playing match after match just to try and figure out what the hell is happening and how you can overcome it. I haven’t played a game like this in the last two to three years. In fact, almost every game I have played in recent times feels like a chore just to go back to. And I ain’t talking about League of Addiction, I’m talking about big hitters like Fallout: New Vegas and Skyrim. These are great games that just don’t draw a player into it in the same way Inscryption, somehow, manages to do.

What is Inscryption’s Scope?

Scope is a developer’s ultimate vision and, in this game’s case, is hidden from the player just behind the game’s perspective. And I mean really hidden. I cannot tell you how confused I was to have the main menu be a function of the game’s story telling and plot progression, but once I figured it out after getting through that part of the game, I was completely blown away. To have a cheap game deliver on its promise ten times over only to expand into something completely different… I just have no words, except for all of these ones. It’s been two days since I managed to get through that part of the game and I’m still in awe of how an indie studio can craft something together such as Inscryption, and I’m not even finished with the thing yet. Without ruining anything, I’ll say that the game’s scope hits a point where you think its done enough, and then it takes another step, and then another, and so on. It seems to never end.

Inscryption has wit, incredible writing, a vision, grand scope, and it doesn’t play by contemporary rules. Its the kind of game that is going to be borrowed and stolen from for the next decade, and it will likely only receive a light nudge by a small portion of the gaming community as credit despite being a contender for game of the year.

GLHF
-E

FromSoftware | At the Crossroads of Destiny

It would take a very sorry soul indeed, to call into question the quality of FromSoftware, the development studio behind the Souls-borne games. Ever since the release of Demon Souls, FromSoftware has been poking and prodding at their game design, all the while honing their craft, title after title.

Save for some pretty blatant issues with Dark Souls 2, FromSoftware been about as consistent in putting out some of the best gaming experiences on the market with every shot they take. This is certainly true for the Dark Souls Trilogy, Bloodborne, and Sekiro. But now the Development team faces a whole new task: redefining themselves.

FromSoftware has been known has the “Dark Souls team” for the past decade. Their other titles, Sekiro and Bloodborne, are generally referred to as their ‘side-projects’. Even with the inaccuracy of those descriptions, they hold true for how many players feel about what FromSoftware is all about: Dark Souls. Even the side projects are considered to be Dark Souls with experimentation in faster combat and fewer RPG elements.

With the fast approaching official release of Elden Ring, it’s becoming more and more clear that a failure to meet the standard as the “Dark Souls Team”, which is synonymous with “talented” at this point, will result in a stronger backlash from FromSoftware’s fan base (and their critics) than would otherwise meet them.

The Studio is evolving, and with that evolution they are moving away from the titles they are known for. This is how, and why, Elden Ring is being brought before us. With that comes a set of risks and rewards that are multiplied heavily over “just another Dark Souls” release.

As mentioned, the criticisms will slam harder. But the praises, potentially, could be amplified to a degree that even a well known Dark Souls 3 would be jealous of. It’s a game that’s been watched, closely, by the players associated with the studio. There’s whole YouTube channels run for the sole purpose of updating people on what news has or hasn’t come out about the game, it’s actually pretty funny.

So What?

Well, what this means for FromSoftware is that a failure to impress, or worse yet, a failure to properly transition into a new phase of the studio’s life, could spell a long, dreary 10 years for the team. They don’t have their previous titles to fall back on, they have no announced side projects for fans to get their hopes up for, this is it. Elden Ring is the main course, and it’s nearly here.

Elden Ring Artwork via FromSoftware
Image via FromSoftware

They want to move away from Dark Souls and begin refining themselves, and that’s exactly what invigorated artists at the top of their game do. But with that comes the harsh reality that they may never find their footing ever again. They may instead topple under the weight their past successes have placed on them.

If Elden Ring’s release comes to pass without blowing players away, we may very well find ourselves in a world where a genre defining studio struggles to find their identity. That kind of struggle either kills an honorable artist, or turns them into a machine that churns out mediocre title after mediocre title just to keep the wolves at bay.

The last thing we need is a FromSoftware that hastily throws out new title after title, desperately trying to fix the mistakes of their last game while simultaneously creating horrendous issues in their new one. But a shaking of the player’s confidence in them could very well lead us to that kind of future.

Here’s to ten more years.

Praise the Sun,
GLHF.
-E