Thursday, June 21, 2012

Can Social Games Stand Up on Their Own?

With the recent news that Dragon Age: Legends, the popular Facebook RPG based on BioWare's hit franchise, was being taken down, and EA releasing a stand-alone client version of the game, the experience has now been torn away from its native platform.  While I'm not a social gaming junkie by any means, I've taken the time to play a number of popular titles, and the Dragon Age brand enticed me, of course.  I initially tried the game out about a year ago, and while it didn't capture my attention then for too long, all this time later it'd be interesting to see what EA had done with the game since then.

What I learned from the experience is that, divorced from its regular context as a Facebook app, Dragon Age: Legends doesn't hold up.  While it's worth trying the game out to see what possibilities exist for RPGs in the social gaming space, it was just as interesting an excercise in understanding how the various mechanics and systems in Legends were specifically tailored for social media platforms... and also has something to say about the quality of other social titles.

Time vs. Money

The vast majority of social games are built entirely around cyclical mechanics that encourage (and often require) players to spend lots of time performing repetitive actions in order to facilitate game progress, which in turn provides the impetus for spending real currency on the game to speed up that progress or bypass the repetitive (and eventually tedious) tasks.  Civilization World, for example, ties player progress to resource intake, and after the tutorials are completed progress becomes extremely slow, with very few actions available to break up the monotony.  In order to get to the "fun parts", spending real currency for resource packages (food, science, etc.) becomes a big draw.

Dragon Age: Legends is not founded upon the same mechanics - in many respects, it resembles a much more typical free to play model.  While players can opt to spend real currency on a wide variety of items and upgrades, all of them can be obtained in-game.  What's different is that these are (mostly) optional rather than mandatory, and the amount of time waiting to get back to those "good parts" is almost entirely eliminated - you might be missing out on a few bombs or potions, but there is nothing preventing you from trying out the next battle on the map.

Even with an energy limit in the Facebook version, once the training wheels are off, player ability has a bigger influence on forward progress than said limits.
 This also reveals an interesting detail about Dragon Age: Legends that separates it from the pack.  Most social games centered around microtransactions, and even higher-budget free-to-play titles, often put a hard cap on player progress that is unrelated to skill level or performance.  In Civ World, as mentioned above, it's your resource intake.  Nothing you can do can really change that - while a good player will progress more quickly, even he/she will ultimately be restrained by those very carefully calculated limitations.  Some of these are, of course, in place to encourage spending, though others exist to encourage daily, repeated play for short bursts rather than lengthy, extended play sessions.

As an RPG with tactical turn-based combat, as well as its own full-blown story, Legends features much softer limits.  Hero units are required for combat, and heroes must rest after completing fights or falling in battle, determined by a global energy meter.  However, new hero units are provided both by the game and by other players, so having a stable of friends playing the game means that players probably won't ever run out of hero units, unless they spend hours upon hours on the game every day.  Energy recharges over time and can be filled by spending currency, but players have more control over their rate of progress directly through their own actions (namely, by winning battles).

Cables Cut

The most obvious change made to gameplay with the removal of the social media platform is that all microtransaction-based content has effectively been rendered irrelevant, and therefore much of it has been removed.  For example, it's no longer possible to add friends to your friends list, which means that heroes don't get tired out or incapacitated after battles - you can play with the same ones as long as you want, which in turn means that the primary limit on gameplay has been removed from the desktop version of Legends.

This has an interesting impact on gameplay.  One of the reasons Dragon Age: Legends has such a huge roster of hero units available is because progress rate is linked to how often you can battle.  If my heroes are all tired for 5 minutes after a fight, I have 3 heroes per fight, and I have 5 heroes, adding a 6th hero effectively increases the amount of battles I can have.  By "juggling" heroes effectively, players could maximize play-time - now, that strategy is rendered moot.

When party members are on a limited-use basis, a layer of strategy is added to overcoming encounters - but when you can use anyone at any time, the combat loses a degree of depth.

The consequences of this can be felt throughout the rest of the game.  Because fighting with a constant revolving door of heroes is no longer required, the differences between them aren't nearly as important - the finer differences between the classes and weapon types have very little consequence on actual gameplay, and instead of having to, say, save your mages for a boss encounter, or your rogues for handling large groups with their "rain of arrows"-type skills, now, all that really matters is raw damage output.  Once I found a hero I liked, I never, ever changed him or her out.  In other words, one of the main gameplay dynamics is gone, and with it, much of the strategy.

There are other, smaller issues with the gameplay systems that come as a result of the lack of a social network to plug into.  Now, the player's keep, effectively the standard mobile/social gaming vanity item (i.e. a house), has been reduced in value.  While the keep actually has more consequence in Legends than the houses in many other social games, because it's used to craft new items or brew potions (via assigned workers), without friends to show it off to or time limits on heroes to consider, actually upgrading and customizing the keep isn't very worthwhile.

By far the biggest problem, though, is that the core gameplay, without the time limits added on to break gameplay into small chunks, or friends to talk to and interact with in various ways, is fairly repetitive and underwhelming.  There's a level of satisfaction there by following the storyline (which is decent enough for a social game), and the combat is certainly decent, but the encounter design, consisting of waves of the same enemies over and over again, leaves a lot to be desired.  What's fun in 10-20 minute bursts can't stand up when it's basically all there is to do in the game.  Moreover, as the game isn't especially challenging, and new content is added with the previous expectation that players would play over weeks instead of hours in mind, the feeling of grind sets in much faster.

The Takeaway

Although Dragon Age: Legends isn't an especially great game taken out of its online context, the most interesting thing I noticed about it was that all the underpinnings of a solid, albeit simplified RPG system were in place.  There's inventory management and loot drops.  There's leveling up complete with new skills that add a lot of functionality in combat.  Battles themselves are turn-based and, past the tutorial, require some thought and prioritizing, with all the makings of a good combat system.  The world map travel, while mostly linear, is the weakest link, but with more branching paths and decisions to make in the story, it could be fairly effective as well.

In other words, while Legends can't really stand up as a game worth playing in its own right, more so than most social games, it doesn't derive meaning entirely from its social functions.  It's still got the same game mechanics and conceits of its "big brothers" and arguably even has more depth in its combat than most other RPGs on the market today.  This is a far cry from many other social games, where the game is less fun for its own sake and more a glossy front for a carefully calculated addition machine.  Legends isn't really fun without Facebook, but the issue is less one of design and more of content.

Although Dragon Age: Legends is now offline, I hope that the lessons it teaches won't be lost on other developers.  Social games represent, potentially, the future of mainstream gaming, and I think it'd be a real shame for all such games to draw their inspiration primarily from Farmville's endless treadmill and cute but ultimately empty framework.  Players are still willing to spend money on traditional titles because they offer features and compelling content that social games don't - but there's no reason why designing a game for Facebook has to abandon fun in favour of rigid adherence to metrics and pay-to-win models.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Thirst: Development Lessons Learned

It's been well over a year since I started work on my Dragon Age: Origins mod, Thirst.  Starting out as a very, very different concept - a short dungeon adventure where your character, a lone archeologist, is transformed into a demon and has to consume the souls of others to stay alive - and eventually working its way into a more standard but much more extensive traditional CRPG format, it underwent a huge number of changes.

While it still has yet to be completed, I have released a playable demo of the first several hours of gameplay, and have a clear vision of where things are going to go from here.  Thirst is not my first mod experience ever, but it was a huge learning experience that got me into "real" game development practices by forcing me to learn how to script using C++, how to properly structure narrative over a longer period of time, how to better construct levels to balance gameplay and realism, and how to handle complex interactions between many, many variables.

In this article I'll be discussing a few of the challenges I faced, and how I overcame and learned from them.

Learn the Tools Before-Hand

One of the reasons that Thirst took so long for me to produce, not counting the odd system crash that forced me to restart it from scratch (though few of those original ideas remain in the final mod), was that I was still becoming familiar with the tools for the better part of its development.  The Dragon Age Toolset is a very good piece of software and quite intelligently organized, with different editors based on resource types, but even so, learning how to perform certain actions, do more advanced editing of game files to produce non-standard results, and set up scripts properly to override default behaviour are things that took me a while to come to grips with.

The Dragon Age Toolset is a great piece of software to use, but its learning curve and workflow required months of experience to fully appreciate and learn.
 As a result, Thirst has some sloppy scripting in places.  There are a few quests that I wrote early on where I use more plot variables than what are really necessary to track progress.  One quest, for instance, revolves around getting information from a prisoner, who in turn demands freedom.  The player has many options for this - pay a bribe, pick the lock on the cell, steal the key, kill the guards, and more.  Lots of unique options demand lots of variables, but aside from minor details the outcomes are all relatively the same - the player frees the prisoner or doesn't.  Without a single variable to track whether the prisoner was freed or not, later scripts became overly convoluted as I had to check four or five variables instead of one.  Had I had better foresight, I would have been able to avoid this issue entirely.

Similarly, my workflow in building levels is something I continually improved over the course of the project.  I learned new techniques for visually improving them, such as adding post-processing like bloom and colour grading - but in turn, that also meant I had to go back and tweak dozens of levels' lighting schemes and layouts to make the new and improved effects work properly.  While not exceptionally time-consuming, it was still several days of work that I could have spent otherwise.  I feel the results were worth it and gave Thirst that "professional" look, but by not knowing how to do things before-hand I had to do more iteration than what was necessary.

Put Yourself in the Player's Shoes

When sitting in the creator's chair, oftentimes there are a lot of ideas flying around in my head.  Usually, they're pretty good and appropriate to a given scenario - for example, creating multiple outcomes or solutions to quests and making things interact properly is something that comes easily to me because I've played plenty of other RPGs in my time - but when it comes to actually implementing them, sometimes the end results are different from what players expect.

Sometimes, this can be very simple things.  At the very beginning of Thirst, while exploring a raided caravan, the player comes across a survivor who provides some background exposition, and starts a small quest that gives impetus for the player to explore later down the road.  Sounds good, except when it came time to play-test, a friend of mine who tried the mod out completely missed the character because he mistook him for another dead body, despite being placed right along the critical path.  Solving it was a combination of a few techniques - placing a torch nearby to illuminate the area and highlight it, adding a dialogue pop-up as the player nears ("help me" etc.) - but this lesson made me drastically re-think the placement of certain characters and the layout of later levels.

Early challenges like this one reinforce the value of character development and positive behaviour like exploring the environment and searching for supplies.
Other times, this extends more to options the player has.  Early on, I learned it was important to establish a sort of gameplay contract with the player that expressed what was possible for the player and what wasn't.  In an RPG, especially one with lots of stats, skills and multiple outcomes for every scenario, it can be easy for the player to assume that "everything" is possible - but of course, very real limitations have to be placed on those possibilities in order to keep the game consistent and the story moving forward.

For example, the encounter with the injured NPC mentioned above has about five different possible options (feed him healing plants, give him a health potion, cast a healing spell, use the Survival skill, etc.) - most situations later in the game don't have quite that breadth of options, but I included them to establish a few ideas, such as "hey, you can use certain items in dialogue!" or "your non-combat skills have value!"  A similar challenge later on, breaking through some bars using a variety of means, was another gate intended to teach players that not only do skills matter, but things like race and attributes as well (for example, a high Strength allows players to break their way through, and playing a smaller race like dwarf or elf allows the player to bypass the puzzle entirely).

Telegraph Consequences

Thirst is a mod that features heavy emphasis on choice and consequence.  While it's not quite the multi-faceted, "everything can change" story of a game like Alpha Protocol, many smaller details can influence each other.  For example, helping a character on a side-quest early on may yield an alternate option on a later main quest, allowing the player to bypass a portion of it.  In another instance, a major quest can be entirely skipped if the player is able to defeat a very challenging enemy.  Perhaps most clearly, two of the major quest-lines are mutually exclusive, and have story repercussions both in immediate and long-term ways.

However, one problem with consequence is that players don't like unwelcome surprises.  Defining exactly what is unwelcome is tricky - for example, is getting into a fight with a character over a prior action a reward, or a punishment?  The context of consequence is very, very important to make sure players don't feel like they've been betrayed by the game, or that their decisions didn't pay off.  This isn't to say that bad outcomes aren't possible or warranted - but when they are, players should be given an understanding that what they do will have some sort of ramification later down the road.

Important decisions are telegraphed in advance so that they feel natural and logical.  Smaller ones have less telegraphing, but serve as minor rewards (or failures) for prior actions that help reinforce the continuity of the game world.
That big choice between the two major quest-lines (City Guard and Criminal Underworld), for instance, is something that I couldn't just surprise the player with.  It's a big decision, relatively speaking, and the consequences in both gameplay and story are notable to say the least, shaping the middle portion of the mod.  Therefore, I made sure to properly telegraph the decision by adding dialogue hinting that helping one party would exclude the other.  When players find that their former allies have turned against them, now it makes sense in the context of the world, story and gameplay, rather than coming off as unexpected or arbitrary.  Even if a player feels it's unwelcome, it doesn't feel like a cheap shot.

Of course, big consequences also require the player be prepared for them.  Much like the gameplay contract regarding options available, as mentioned above, a contract around consequences must also be established.  As a result, I made sure to include a number of smaller consequences in the introductory stages of the mod that have clear lineage and dependency.  For example, the way the player deals with a couple of mercenaries in a tavern early on has ramifications later on, when the player runs into them and they either provide information during a quest, or attack the player.  Another such consequence involves helping a merchant slip past a trade embargo - if the player assists him, not only will he appear later on in the city, but he'll offer a new quest and provide information for another unrelated quest.  Yet another early quest has the option of ratting out a corrupt city official, which leads to his assassination, preventing the merchant's second quest mentioned above.  These outcomes aren't always stated clearly in advance, and the consequences aren't necessarily huge, but they are felt and understood all the same, especially as they ramp up in significance over the course of the story.

Don't Build Gameplay Your Tech and Systems Don't Support

I started working with the Dragon Age: Origins mod tools because, at the time, it was one of the few good sets of RPG tools I had access to, and because at the time there was a vibrant mod community for it (unfortunately, not so much today).  My intent was always to build a mod where there were lots of options for the player, with plenty of consequences to boot - however, the limitations of the Dragon Age game mechanics and systems also made themselves apparent when creating Thirst.

One of the biggest problems I had was that stealth and thieving skills are not very well implemented.  This mostly comes down to the fact that Dragon Age: Origins is a game largely centered around dungeon crawling and combat, and those thieving skills are just not especially valuable except for a handful of times.  Although I tried to develop some semblance of stealth gameplay, and I included several quests where the player can pick pockets, open locks and so on to succeed, it always felt half-baked because the core rules themselves were under-developed as well.  Re-engineering the game's character system and rules was something well beyond me, as that in itself would require huge time investments, play-testing, and tons of balancing that would ultimately be better spent on creating new content.

Ultimately, Dragon Age is a game whose mechanics revolve mostly around combat, and I decided to include more combat as the project went on to play to the strengths of the rule set and engine.
 Another problem I struggled with was handling certain quest outcomes.  I would have loved to include more dexterity checks in the game, or stealth checks, even in dialogue, for example, to allow for great moments like Age of Decadence's "throw your crossbow at guard and stab him in the face while he's distracted", but because of the fully 3D, close-up perspective Dragon Age: Origins takes, presenting those sorts of moments would have been a matter of hand-animating them.  Frankly, spending hours or even days keyframing out a short cinematic sequence that only as fraction of players would see was not a good way to spend time.

Even when I did include a few moments, like the player stealing items in dialogue, they didn't really come across that well, because while the mechanics were all there, the presentation I was able to achieve wasn't up to snuff.  The same also applies to voice acting.  Simply put, Thirst has none, but it does have the Dragon Age-style close-up dialogue cameras and character animations, which is arguably a bit jarring.  The fact is that Thirst has thousands of lines of dialogue, and voicing them myself is a near logistic impossibility that would add immensely to development time, not to mention the issue of dealing with a locked-down script (I'm not an amazing dialogue writer and I usually revise things many times over), finding adequate voice actors (I don't think I'd be satisfied with the mixed quality a small non-professional cast could provide, no offense to those who are doing voice-over with their own mods), etc.  None of these would be problems if I had gone with an old-school 2D engine, or even with a game like Neverwinter Nights 2, where text-only dialogue is common.

Closing Thoughts

In short, Thirst was a huge undertaking for me and I'm happy that I've managed to finally release something, even if it still isn't the complete version of the mod.  I learned a lot of lessons over the course of its development, and if there's some consolation in going back to create another 3-5 hours of gameplay and story over the next several months, it's that, now that I am familiar with the tools and know my strengths, weaknesses and limitations, not to mention a more efficient workflow, I can produce work much more quickly.

I'm not a professional developer, but hopefully my experiences have made for an interesting read, whether you're an amateur, modder, industry hopeful, pro, or just a fan.  I'd love to hear any similar experiences anyone else has had with their own work, as well.  Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Shameless Self-Promotion: Thirst Demo Released

The Dragon Age: Origins mod I've been working on on-and-off for close to two years now, Thirst, has reached a state where I feel it's fit for public consumption.  As a result, I've released a public demo version of the mod covering about 2/3 of the experience (the remaining 1/3 has yet to be completed, naturally).  As a stand-alone campaign, it offers several hours of play-time, heavy focus on choice & consequence (not all of it clear in the demo), and mutually exclusive quest paths that require multiple replays to fully explore.

Thirst is the result of thousands of hours of work and many, many sleepless nights spent building levels, writing dialogue and fixing bugs.  As the first major mod I've ever worked on (and the first ever released by me), it's a milestone achievement for me and has been a great learning experience.  Hopefully I'll be able to finish it one day in the future, but for now I thought it'd be great to get feedback on it.

I'll be writing a follow-up post describing a few of its development challenges and things I learned while working on it.  For now, I'd appreciate it if anyone interested would check it out at its Dragon Age Nexus project page.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Money for Nothing: Fixing Currency Systems

If there is one thing that you can count on when playing an RPG, and many other game genres for that matter, is that eventually, your character or party will become a sort of economic singularity - the focal point of all commerce in the world, either by providing goods at a rate that not even the biggest manufacturing plants or most skilled craftsmen can match, or by having so much cash on-hand as to make it near-worthless as a resource.

The currency problem is one that developers have struggled with for decades, and it's hard to find an RPG that doesn't fall into this trap.  The reasons usually boil down less to a lack of talent and care and more to the simple fact that, especially in a single-player game, a well-balanced economy isn't a really big priority compared to crafting interesting encounters to enjoy, or tweaking more important gameplay systems.  Multiplayer economies, fortunately, tend to balance themselves out as players create their own currencies and set the prices on their own.

In this article, I'll be taking a look at currency in games, with specific respect to RPGs, and how they can be made valuable once again.

Currency & Economies

First, it's worth drawing a line between money and an economy.  Most interesting game systems revolve around economies of different sorts, especially any game with an element of customization or free progression to it.  An economy doesn't have to have money at all; it can also include skill points to assign to new skills, or crafting materials used to upgrade items and equipment.  Mechanically speaking, all of these offer more or less the same sort of function: they impose a limitation on the player's capabilities by way of a singular resource.

Of course, money works so well because it can fulfill a number of roles.  The first, strictly mechanical, allows the player to exchange a common resource (cash, gold, etc.) for new equipment, or upgrades, or even story progress.  This scratches an interesting itch with systems design - specifically, it gets systems interacting with one another.  In the case of currency, the interplay between equipment and the means to acquire it (such as combat) can create a cyclical relationship where one element fuels the other.  The Gothic games are a great example of this - most money is made by completing quests and exploring the world, and that money goes directly into character training and new gear, which allows the player to explore and quest more.

Fallout's bartering is more or less mechanically identical to any currency system, but the way the information is presented says a lot about the game world.
The second great thing about currency is the narrative value that is contained within it.  While it's easy to say that currency works simply because everyone already knows what it is, it can actually serve to flesh out a game world significantly.  Fallout's combination of a barter system with bottle caps, for instance, suggests all sorts of things about the lack of economic and social stability of the world, while the strictly-counted coinage of Dragon Age suggests a stable economy and the presence of financial authorities.  Moreover, sometimes the absence of currency is just as evocative as the nature of currency itself - Path of Exile uses a barter system without any sort of currency at all to reinforce the primitive and unsettled nature of its environment.

It's also worth bringing up here that money is typically a problem in and of itself not so much because of what it is, but all the baggage it carries along with it.  Money is a near-constant in our world and a staple of almost every single large organized society on the planet - it simply makes sense as a way of exchanging goods and services in a free, fair and equitable manner.  However, that exact knowledge we have of money drags it down - we have expectations about how money should work in a game world because we know how it works in our own world.  With some other form of currency, this problem can be neatly avoided because of the associative distance it adds.


The huge problem with currency systems is that there's always a desire for the player to keep advancing, which usually means bigger rewards, higher costs, and so on.  The end result is a sort of systems bloat that only becomes manifest through extended play-testing - the player might make 10 copper coins for a quest early on, but late in the game, he/she will receive 10 gold coins instead.  Relatively speaking, the value of currency needs to stay constant to keep the system balanced.  After all, if a health potion costs 5 copper both early on and late in the game, later on those potions will be extremely cheap to purchase.

Mods like Skyrim's "Dynamic Merchants" promise to make the game's economy better, but sometimes they can become a liability for players.
There are two ways to deal with this problem.  One of them is to implement more realistic economics into a game.  Many popular mods for the Elder Scrolls series already do this, but given the extra difficulty in developing and balancing such systems, these are usually left out of original game releases and left up to dedicated fans to implement.  Moreover, these realistic approaches to economics aren't always fun - if the player just wants to offload some junk items, should he/she really have to think hard about which merchant to sell to, in order to maintain the best economic situation?  It may simply not suit the style or pace of the game to require the player put that much effort into what might, ideally, be a quick and easy process.

The second way of dealing with inflation, and the one that is seen more often, is to effectively raise the cost of living.  This means that as the game goes on and the player levels up, those old health potions, while cheap to buy, won't be very effective because the enemies are so much stronger and the health bonus they provide is relatively low - instead, players need to buy the much more expensive Potion of Ultimate Healing(TM) to manage.  This preserves the feel of progress and improvement, because the numbers keep getting bigger, but it can also come across as a bit shallow.  After all, the player still wants to feel like he/she is getting stronger and more successful, and keeping everything constant around the player can lead to a state of monotony.  The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is a classic example of this approach taken to extremes; ideally, there should be a gradual incline in the player's buying power, not just a fixed, straight line.

Supply & Demand

One other way to help keep currency valuable is to implement finite item supplies.  Most games feature infinitely replenishable sources of money and equipment, simply because it's fairly easy and safe.  However, it also leads to the problem of players being able to "farm" endlessly for supplies or money, not necessarily a problem for some games that rely on it (Diablo being the obvious example), but it's often not so good for single-player titles where pacing of the narrative and gameplay can be a real concern.

Still, there are issues associated with limited supplies.  The most obvious is that the player can, in theory, bring the game into an unwinnable state by using up all of those vital supplies on trivial tasks, and is left with none to use to finish the game with.  While usually more of an issue with optional content, if there's a way to break the game, chances are some players are going to do so.  When combined with other issues, like autosave/checkpoint save systems rather than hard save files, it's a real concern that probably deserves to be addressed.

Diablo III has merchants and gold, but these are almost meaningless outside the multiplayer meta-game, as merchants rarely carry anything worth buying, and fighting enemies yields far greater rewards.
Yet another is that it can be immersion-breaking to have truly limited supplies, depending on context.  Sure, it makes sense that the world of Fallout would have a limited amount of Stimpaks or assault rifle ammo, because nobody can manufacture more, but most game worlds aren't like this and typically have some form of industry that's capable of creating goods in the first place.  Did the blacksmith suddenly decide to just stop making helmets?  Did the town alchemist decide it wasn't worth brewing up any more potions?  In a genre that often strives for verisimilitude, the prospect of no resupply whatsoever is an issue.

The best solution to this problem I've seen is some sort of timer that triggers when items are restocked.  This can be difficult to implement given the game, because not all titles have any sort of persistent world with simulated time flow, and often the work-around (have shops replenish or change inventory at key story points) can come across as a little contrived or heavy-handed.  Ideally, only certain items would restock with merchants, and only certain enemies, supplies and other sources of items would respawn - basic supplies that are useful throughout the game are a given, but it's probably not a good idea if the best, unique equipment also reappears on schedule.

Sometimes, Poorer is Better

Still, recalling the mechanical reasons for including money in games (universal resources exchanged for disparate game functions), it becomes clear that sometimes the best solution is actually to stay as far away from money as possible.  Money is only valuable for what it represents, after all - and many games can do just fine without it - there are myriad alternatives that are just as if not more effective, and avoid the unnecessary middleman money can often be.

Crafting is the go-to example of an in-game economy that is often detached from money itself.  In some respects it's actually a more pure economy and has more interesting systemic interplay - crafting items can be different types, materials and so on, for instance, while typically money is one type of resource (sometimes broken up for aesthetic reasons, i.e. gold/silver/copper).  Crafting supplies reward players by allowing them to create new items of their own choosing, but avoid the unnecessary and immersion-breaking issue of an in-game economy that makes absolutely no sense.

Another economy system that tends to be overlooked is, of course, experience points and leveling up.  Even more direct an economy than crafting is, experience is typically and directly rewarded for victory in combat, and can in theory be used immediately as it's gained (by banking it for a level-up).  Dark Souls implements something along these lines by allowing players to use souls (XP) both to level-up their player character, as well as purchase and upgrade items.  In the context of the game universe, it makes sense and has a story reason for working the way it does , and it also avoids the problem of the economy getting bloated.

Closing Thoughts

Generally speaking, I'm actually of a mind to stay far away from money as a form of currency when it can be managed.  While there's something to be said for money as a narrative and gameplay device, the problems in balancing it in such a way as to make sense in the game universe, as well as a game system, can make it more trouble than it's probably worth.  Money is usually one of those things that's included in games (and especially RPGs) simply because it's expected, but the underlying concept is far more valuable than face value.

E3 2012 Impressions: Year of the Cover Shooter

E3 is close to wrapping up, and if there's one thing that I've taken away from it this year, it's that 2012 is looking to be the year of the cover-based shooter.  While some have lamented the move towards a very stock-standard form of shooter in the past, E3 2012 is the first time I've really felt a sense of fatigue at so many games on display.

Perhaps what's different this year is that so many of these games aren't new properties, but old ones that have firmly-cemented histories in other genres.  It's not enough to say that E3 2012 is the year of the cover shooter - rather, it'd be more appropriate to say that it's the year of reinvention, where many franchises that have found themselves treading water over the last few years have suddenly found a new direction.

Unfortunately, the downside is that while production values are higher than ever and graphics are often, in a word, phenomenal, some of these titles haven't so much found new life as they have borrowed the spark from others.  The end result is a string of games that simply look and feel monotonous - genre taken to truly homogeneous levels.

Before continuing, I'd like to add the disclaimer that I haven't played any of these titles yet, and obviously none of them are out yet.  These are my impressions based solely on the demo footage I've been able to find.  Of course, I also mean no disrespect to anyone who may be working on these titles - my complaints here have less to do with game content itself and more with genre than anything else.

Tomb Raider

As a fan of the classic Tomb Raider games, I was cautiously optimistic about the reworking of the Tomb Raider franchise.  Truth be told, the changes to protagonist Lara Croft didn't especially incense me - she was never a character I had much of an emotional attachment to.  However, the platform-centric, adventure-driven gameplay defined a generation of early 3D console titles, and the mid-2000s reboot by Crystal Dynamics was able to bring Tomb Raider back on track by going back to the roots of the franchise, while at the same time updating the visuals and controls to more modern standards.

This new Tomb Raider, unfortunately, only bears a passing resemblance to the earlier titles (much like Lara Croft's new makeover).  While Tomb Raider stood as one of the last bastions of platform-heavy action-adventure gameplay, with mind-twisting puzzles thrown in for good measure, this brand new game has abandoned much of the slow, methodical pace of prior games in favour of a cinematic theme park ride that, to be frank, borrows heavily from Naughty Dog's Uncharted series.

It's not that Tomb Raider is shaping up to be a poor quality game - far from it - but looking at it, I can't help but think that the last vestiges of what was once a strong genre are now gone.  While I can't disagree with a more modern take on Tomb Raider, the constant action, Gears of War-style combat and focus on a "dark and gritty" presentation feels like it goes much too far away from the fun, adventurous spirit of the franchise.   Tomb Raider was always more Indiana Jones than anything else, and in a sense even Uncharted seems to be much more like classic Tomb Raider in terms of tone than this new title is.

Resident Evil 6

Resident Evil isn't a series I grew up with in the same way I did Tomb Raider, but it was always on my radar, and Resident Evil 2 and 4 were some of the most memorable games for me of their respective generations.  While not the birth of the survival horror genre, Resident Evil was the first truly defined incarnation of it, and was responsible for a literal movement in gaming after its release, a small explosion of zombie-themed and horror titles that lasted for years after.  The slow, methodical pace, focus on smart item management, puzzle-solving and constant tension and dread were synonymous with the Resident Evil name.

Resident Evil 4 marked a drastic shift away from the slower-paced roots of the franchise, but still maintained a lot of the classic tropes - inventory management, puzzle-solving, and exploration were all hugely important to the game, and while the brand-new over-the-shoulder camera perspective laid groundwork for later titles like Gears of War, to call Resident Evil 4 a shooter would be simply inaccurate.

Resident Evil 6 seems to follow in the footsteps of Resident Evil 5, putting even more emphasis on action, even including cover-based combat.  To say that Resident Evil 6 even remotely resembles the roots of the franchise would be inaccurate - aside from the characters on-screen, it bears a much closer resmeblance to any number of modern shooters.  The fast-paced and frantic play stands in stark contrast to the slow, measured pace of the original titles and even Resident Evil 4, and to be honest, I'm not really sure this is what any Resident Evil fans had asked for.

Star Wars 1313

The Internet is abuzz with discussion about Star Wars 1313's visual splendour, and LucasArts are to be commended for producing a fantastic-looking game.  Beyond that, though, 1313 also appears to be an extremely generic, stock-standard cover-based shooter that follows the Gears of War-slash-Uncharted model almost to a T.  Semi-interactive cinematic sequences abound, as well as brutal melee finishing moves and cover-to-cover mole-whacking combat.

Star Wars has always been a host to disparate gameplay styles, and truth be told many of the most popular ones took a lot of inspiration from contemporary titles.  TIE Fighter was, of course, similar to the Wing Commander series and other 3D space fighters around at the time, and Dark Forces was inspired by Doom.  However, the Star Wars games have always had a streak of originality in them that set them apart from the pack, usually boasting added layers of complexity and depth in mechanics and systems that other similar games didn't have.  For a long time, Star Wars wasn't just a brand name, it was often a stamp of exceptional quality.

I'm not sure what to think about this new title.  It's clearly got the presentation nailed, but like Tomb Raider, it's a game that looks positively cookie-cutter.  The implementation is effective, but I'm not seeing any of the "magic" that many Star Wars titles of the last few generations had.  Beyond all the visual polish, Star Wars 1313 is just another cover-based shooter, and it's disappointing to me that the technology isn't being used to do something ground-breaking.

Genre, Tribute or Creative Bankruptcy?

As I mentioned above, the overarching impression I get from these titles (and several others, like Splinter Cell: Blacklist) is that the games industry, creatively speaking, is compressing and condensing. It's not that the games being produced are in any way bad, but rather, so many ideas are gravitating toward one another that the end result has become a sort of "soup", a collection of all the modern videogame tropes brought together.

I'm not sure this is something I can call genre.  Genre, as far as games goes, usually refers to similarities in play mechanics and, to a degree, presentation of those mechanics.  What we have here is even more extreme.  Not only do we have games with nearly identical mechanics, they also have very similar if not identical controls, and other elements of the interface, right down to camera angles, slow-motion sequences and more are almost identical between games.

A case can be made that this is the same as your standard first-person shooter - games like Call of Duty and Battlefield are so similar as to be nearly indistinguishable from one another at a casual glance - but what's disturbing about it, for me, is that this isn't really a case of brand-new titles intentionally being built to conform to a style - it's a case of the originality, substance and character of existing game franchises being lost as they're mashed up in the "modern cover shooter" blender.