So I found out last night that the Video Game Orchestra performed Big Blue not once, but twice: they performed it at PAX East 2012, which I attended, and then again at PAX Prime 2012, which I missed. Their Prime performance was slightly different, in a very good way, and I think it’s definitely worth your time.
I know I've been quiet lately, and I plan to post more soon, but I just noticed something that is on the tip of tragedy.
There are 13 days to go in their Kickstarter, and they've raised just half of what they need to record the album properly. The CD track list will include music from Kingdom Hearts, Snake Eater, and Chrono Trigger, among others.
I truly think the reason that this Kickstarter hasn't blown up is publicity - I hadn't heard of it through my regular websites crawling. When I watch videos of their performances, they're clearly having an amazing time, and they're incredibly talented - they really, really deserve our support. If iPhone docks can raise over $1.4 million, I see no reason why we can't get these guys another $15000 to push them over the edge.
Mark of the Ninja is utterly fantastic. Klei knocked the ball out of the park with this game, and I urge everyone who is a fan of stealth games or ninja to go and try it.
What shocked me is how perfectly stealth works in a 2D space. The world of Mark of the Ninja follows Klei’s usual highly-stylized 2D style, and it fits the game like a custom glove. Mark of the Ninja also uses a visual trick I haven’t seen since Nox. Take a look:
Do you see how everything past the walls is dark and muddled? The game represents your vision around obstacles by darking out & blurring what your character can’t see. This is an essential element of stealth games, where barging into rooms like an idiot should result in death, and scouting is a precursor to all action. This is easy in a 3D game (you can see what you see!) but in a 2D game that shows the entire screen, this sort of shadow (or fog of war) is essential to making a stealth game interesting.
Seriously, look how gorgeous this game is:
One thing Mark of the Ninja does exceptionally well is keeping everything in the game super clear and well-defined. The screenshot above would be a complete wash in Splinter Cell - the rain combined with the darkness would make the whole thing nearly impenetrable. Stealth games often wash out everything in darkness to the point where you bump into guards simply because it’s too damned dark. Batman & Splinter Cell solve this issue by providing goggles that let you see through walls, clearly distinguish foes & interaction points, rendering this point moot. The first level in Chaos Theory starts with a difficult section where Sam needs to find a small crack in a cliff during a night storm. If you don’t know how to use Sam’s visors, it’s awfully hard to find that crack in the cliff to slip through.
Mark of the Ninja uses those stylized 2D graphics and fantastic uses of colour to keep things clear. That guard in the screenshot above is super-easy to see - you know exactly where he is & which direction his light is facing. As enemies leave your sight they remain represented by small ‘ripples’ on the screen - one for every footstep. It’s incredibly satisfying to stalk a guard by his footsteps, noticing when he turns around, and popping out of the floor to gank him.
The game uses these ripples to signify all sorts of stuff - a dog’s sniffing radius, what exactly distracted a guard, or where that loud sound is coming from. Mark of the Ninja is an awfully clear game, so you are always given the ability to make good choices (if you scout!). You never die because you thought that dog’s smell radius was smaller. Every time you die or fail, it’s because of a mistake you made - perhaps you tried to slip somewhere you shouldn’t have, or tried an escape too daring, or barged through a door without checking. That moment in Metal Gear Solid where a guard heard you, even though you aren’t sure what you did to cause the noise? That doesn’t happen in Mark of the Ninja, because you’d see the noise ripple and realize that using your grappling hook makes a small noise.
The controls are also expertly designed. In Splinter Cell, looking through a door with your snake camera is awkward. You need to move up to the door, hold open, and use your analog stick to select Camera, then release and wait for Sam’s animation. (Earlier Splinter Cell games also required you to pause and equip the camera). In Mark of the Ninja, you just lean against the door. Sure, this can be explained away with ninja senses vs. snake cameras, but it’s still elegant and fast.
Finally, I adore this game’s level design. Each level has a main objective, but also three optional ‘Seals’ (get through a certain area without being seen, terrorize guards into shooting each other, etc). Completing the Seals is optional, but you are rewarded with additional costumes that provide new or changed skills for you to take advantage of. At the end of each level, you are graded on how many enemies saw you, how stealthy your kills were (or how often you ghosted guards - avoided them without them ever being aware of them), etc. I’ve already replayed several levels seeking that perfect run, but I don’t need to. People who aren’t as enamored with stealth games as I am might cut a bloody trail through each level, with alarms and bullets in their wake. But if you want to really be a stealthy bastard and sneak, the game will let you know how you did.
Destructoid’s Holly Green called Mark of the Ninja “the benchmark by which all stealth games are now measured”. It would be irresponsible of me to concur without having finished Mark of the Ninja, but so far (five, six hours in) I agree wholeheartedly. This game puts other stealth games to shame.
I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve been playing more and more League of Legends, and thus I’ve been exposed more to the utterly terrible community. Until I started burning downtime at work with the LoL Tribunal, I wouldn’t have even believed a community could exist with this amount of hatred. There will always be bigots and racists and assholes, but it still shocks me that the vast majority of my League games include multiple dickwads. Where the hell do these people come from?
My continuing familarity with this genre has helped me find out. This terrible community isn’t a League of Legends specific problem. In general, the larger the community, the worse it is. League has some 30+ million players, so it certainly hits that mark. But there is more to this than size. Other similar games (Defense of the Ancients, Heroes of Newerth, etc) have atrocious communities too, despite being much smaller. A horrid community seems endemic to this genre.
What is it about MOBAs that makes the communities so shit?
First, let’s rename the genre. ‘MOBA’ is terrible, and I can’t bring myself to use it. Multiplayer-online-battle-arena isn’t descriptive, it’s a bunch of Barnum words. I think a much better genre for League of Legends is “multiplayer base defense fighting game”. The base idea of the game has you defending your base, but the actual gameplay interactions are more like a fighting game. I’d have called it tower defense, but that brings to mind a completely different genre. Tactics used in League of Legends are similar to what you might see in fighting games - zoning, area control, counter picks, baiting, mind games, ability combos, etc. The fact that you level up and buy items doesn’t make this game an RPG - nobody plays a role, there’s no story, etc. They’re just implementation details of this fighting game.
This helps highlight exactly why the game gets so competitive. You spend nearly an hour directly fighting someone - each time you hit them is a victory of you over them, each time they kill a minion is a small triumph over you. It’s really quite personal.
But this isn’t terribly different from other games, at least, not yet. The real reason why League’s community is so impossibly bad is because League makes you compete with your own teammates.
Team of Rivals
You compete with your own team in two main ways. First of all, if you screw up, you really harm your team. In Halo, death means a 5-15 second break and respawning with full ammo and a Battle Rifle. Death in League means that the enemy who killed you gets a sizeable gold and experience bonus, and while you aren’t there, he can farm minions and make even more money. Or he can leave his lane and go bully your team. Death really, really sucks, so that’s why the #1 advice I give to new players is to be a huge coward and not die.
In Halo, one stray grenade or sniper bullet can kill someone. Death comes very easily, so being down one team member for a fight isn’t that huge of a deal: a lucky shot or melee attack can turn a fight in your favour. In League, a 1 player difference is devastating. Plus, as you continue die a second and third time, you’re making that same opponent even more powerful. Each death is taking a slippery slope and making it even slipperier. This effect is very strong: I’d rather play 4v5 (being a member of the team with four players), than 5v5 with one truly bad or trolling teammate.
Furthermore, a player on your team who starts bad never gets enough of a bonus to “catch up”, so bullying him becomes smarter and smarter for the enemy team. They get the same cash bonus for killing him, and he gets easier and easier to kill, so a good enemy team will completely bully a weak player. That weak player will bring down his entire team.
League players are trained to hate and distrust their own team because their teammates can games so much more difficult for them. The only person you can trust is yourself.
You also compete with your own team for the limited resources on each map. Again, this is no difficult from Halo, except that these resources are often permanent. If you steal a kill from a member of your team, in his eyes, you just made him weaker, even though the two of you collaborated in the destruction of your mutual enemy. In most games, kill-stealing isn’t a big deal, since comparative kill scores are just for comparison post game - whichever team kills more matters, rather than who gets those kills. In League, some people absolutely fly off the handle when you steal their kill, even if you didn’t intend to steal it. Limited resources include minions to kill (that’s why one player in bottom lane often picks a healer champion and doesn’t farm gold, so another player gets it all), buffs on the map, and even enemy champions. Individual players often feel that they individually can make the best use of each resource, so if you take a buff another player feels entitled to, he feels that you made him weaker. And if the resource you want is missing? It’s clearly because of your own team who let it get stolen. Again, they’re making you weaker!
This game design is seen in the League of Legends, Defense of the Ancients 2, Heroes of Newerth and more. It boils down to the game design making you want to hate your team. In League, interacting with your team is of such high importance that having a few bad teams sours the whole experience. And unfortunately, because of the vast popularity of League of Legends, the average skill spread is a chasm. Any given team is likely to have one average player, two above average players, and two below average players. Those two below average players can literally ruin the game - they have a much stronger impact than the two above average players.
Finally, a poster on the Team Liquid forums found that if a team is 10% ahead in gold earned by the 12 minute mark, they win 95% of games. Think about that for a second. 10% is not much; a bad player in top lane will cause that. And while that’s only one data set, in my experience it holds true. League of Legends is all about momentum, so if one player halts your momentum, you hate them because they’re likely costing you the game.
Sadly, I think that this terrible community is inevitable because of the way League of Legends is designed. There’s really nothing Riot can to improve the community without dramatically modifying the game. Months ago, I suggested that they could implement diminishing returns on killing bad players. This means that a bad player would not impact his team as strongly, but it would represent a massive change to team strategy, which can have unintended side effects on the game.
Riot has a “quit protection” method I absolutely despise. If a player leaves a game, he can’t play any games until the game he left finishes. I like this idea, but it does incentivize the player to end a game quickly rather than just quit if he wants to leave the game (say his friend comes online). As I said above, I’d rather play 4v5 than have a bad player on my team, but this quit protection incentivizes the player to suicide against the enemy team and feed them to end the game quickly, rather than just quitting. If you quit, you should be able to play again, but Riot should simply crush quitters algorithmically. Quit 3 games every 20 games? Temporary ban. (These numbers are just examples, I’d need more data on quitters to know what numbers to pick).
But in the end, I really don’t think there is anything Riot can do. They have an enormous community, far too big to feel tight-knit, and their game is incredibly competitive, both between teams and within them. Short of implementing a co-op campaign mode and removing player vs player, I don’t think they can really do anything about their shitty community other than to survive it.
PS: Riot states that they have systems to prevent players from only punishing those they see in the Tribunal, the 80+ cases I’ve judged have been overwhelmingly “punish” verdicts. I’ve only pardoned three or four times, and in most cases, I see enough foul language in the chat log to be ready to punish before the 20 second timer has finished.
Some folk on Reddit wrote things like “Well, some players aren’t that bad, so I let one racist remark slide”. I don’t think we should lower our standards as judges simply because the community is terrible in general.
Variety without depth only satisfies novelty.
Xypherous, a Riot employee (developer of League of Legends), posted this excellent quote in a thread on the League of Legends forums yesterday. That is possibly the most pure way to express my belief about choices in games.
There’s a bit of discontent regarding the amount of content in League of Legends right now. A small yet vocal section of the fanbase believes the game would be better with more maps. I disagree wholeheartedly: I feel that League of Legends is a fighting game at it’s heart, and it’s rare that people demand more maps in Street Fighter.
Unbelievable, Kotaku writers keep writing about this crappy - sorry, important - game, now saying the 3d character art is “incredible”.
I do admit: the 3D render of Morgan Freeman is impressive. The artists who did that are talented indeed. The photos aren’t of the in-game Morgan Freeman model, but rather a 3D rendering by artists (it’s essentially 3D rendering concept art).
But that’s not why I’m writing about this. Sadly, I’m writing about another atrocious Kotaku headline. “Batman’s Morgan Freeman & Catwoman Look Almost as Good in a Game as They do in Real Life”.
Whoa whoa whoa, let’s hold up for a second. These 3D models aren’t used in-game - like I said, they’re essentially 3D concept art. The headline is a lie. Batman looks like this:
The graphics aren’t ugly, but they certainly aren’t nearly as good as the 3D renders. Article author Luke Plunkett keeps the greatness coming in the comment section. One reader (“Shardik-the-man-bear”) wrote a comment:
thats a little hard to swallow, they look like real pictures that were touched up to not look real. If they were straight up drawn, I’d be surprised.
Plunkett responds by being condescending:
They’re 3D models.
How could a commenter be confused? After all, the images show a gorgeous, near-photo quality render of Morgen Freeman, but the headline says in-game. Oh, that’s the confusing part - the title is factually incorrect. Great job, Kotaku writing team.
I was officially linkbaited into reading a Kotaku article today. I’ve provided a link, but you really don’t need to go read it.
The headline reads: “The great, terrible, incredibly important Dark Knight Rises game”. Despite my distaste for Kotaku, I was curious about their reasoning for calling the Dark Knight Rises game ‘important’. My gut (& the previews I saw on various websites) told me it is a movie cash-in game. Nothing exciting or unusual.
Stephen Totilo’s article opens strong.
The official video game for The Dark Knight Rises costs $7, looks amazing on my iPad, is a bit of a mess and is one of the most important video games of the year.
I’m still not sure what his point is, but OK. It’s super important.
The Dark Knight Rises game is, really, an astounding mediocrity. It’s an open-world Batman game that plays like a poor man’s Batman: Arkham City, the critically acclaimed $60 open-world Batman game of last year. You’ll notice that this poor man’s version costs nearly a 10th of Arkham City, but is maybe only a quarter as good. What’s astounding is that, for this cheap, on this machine, it runs. (See the video we shot of it, above.)
Again, I’m not sure how to parse this. If the game is 90% cheaper and runs 25% as good, that doesn’t sound like a bad deal, all things considering. Maybe it isn’t, but I can’t tell. I also don’t understand what’s astounding about the game running “on this machine”:his iPad 1? 2? 3? we never find out, making this an excercise in futility: if that was running on an original iPad I’d be mildly impressed, but it’s not that good looking. Many iOS games look as good, and some look better, so I’m not “astounded” by this. Maybe I have higher standards than Totilo.
He goes on to describe the game, sounding astounded by the player’s ability to upgrade Batman’s gear or and beat up villains. Totilo breathlessly ramps up to his grand conclusion:
This is, in other words, a 2012 version of the so-so officially-licensed movie game that our ancestors had to pay full price for back in the Super Nintendo and PlayStation eras. This is a passable game released in order to officially glom onto the release of a movie. The shock here is that it’s been done for $7 and that, the iPad/iPhone/Android’s lack of buttons notwithstanding, it’s a shockingly attractive and substantial multi-chapter game.
So, I should be shocked that there’s a $7 movie tie-in game? I wasn’t aware that it was new. What about The Hunger Games? Iron Man 2? Super 8? Hell, Spider-Man got not one, but two tie-in apps. Warning: these are all App Store links).
All of these apps have at least a 3 star average review, so they’re at least passable, which is what Totilo calls the Dark Knight Rises (he also calls it great, terrible, and important, but let’s stick with his conclusion). The only interesting thing about the Dark Knight Rises tie-in is the price of $7; this is several dollars more expensive than every other game I’ve listed.
Based on my own research, as well as Totilo’s near-breathless article, I don’t think the Dark Knight Rises is particularly great, nor terrible. I haven’t played it myself, so I shan’t pass judgment. But the one thing I can conclude with certainty is that it is not important, making Totilo’s article useless. It has no purpose, doesn’t really have a clear statement or thesis, and it is a waste of time.