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Monthly Archives: February 2015

This is Life: A Review of ‘Life is Strange’ (Hint: Go play it!)

I had the pleasure of playing Life is Strange yesterday, and I was not disappointed.

I picked it up because I heard great things about its cinematic storytelling and gameplay. I had a really great experience with this type of game a month ago when playing Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, which totally won me over. It had great visuals, pacing, gameplay, and most of all, told a rich, emotional story (without the use of language, to boot).

Strange and Beautiful

Strange and Beautiful

Oh, to be young again...

Oh, to be young again…

Life is Strange is an honest portrait of the teenage mind–one that doesn’t hold back in its reality the way that most media tend to. You are able to revisit what it was like to experience the thoughts of a blossoming young mind, full of complex emotions. You face socially awkward situations, make friends and enemies, and even face serious issues such as bullying, drug use, and even unwanted pregnancy.

It is almost like a high school simulation. But then, it isn’t. Right from the start, there is something strange going on. As you go through your seemingly normal day at this prestigious private academy, something magical is happening around you. The gameplay encourages you to take your time and live your life as if you were there, while simultaneously compelling you ever forward with its mysterious storyline.

It is the perfect blend of the mundane with the fantastical.

Very hip to current trends and issues.

Very hip to current trends.

It even has a sense of humor!

It even has a sense of humor!

Screenshots doesn’t do this game justice, because it’s not really about the story (yet). It’s about life, about each moment you spend in it, and how your actions matter to you and to those around you. This game doesn’t shy away from real issues, either. In fact, it seems to embrace them and puts the player in the shoes of those affected by them. Even with it’s potty-mouthed, black-mailing, pot-smoking crew of characters, I would urge every teenager (and beyond) to go and play this game. Screw the Mature ratings! This is their world anyway.

This game doesn't shy away from real issues.

This game doesn’t shy away from real issues.

Do you remember when you used to doodle in class?

Do you remember when you used to doodle in class?

This is a very different type of game for sure, but it works. With Telltale games pioneering the way for these short, episodic games–and now other studios following suit–these story-driven games seem to be a developing trend. I am looking forward to what comes next.

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Posted by on February 16, 2015 in Gaming

 

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Satellite Call

When you go through something that makes you seem like a victim–something that gathers everyone’s attention upon you and wonder “why?” and “what happened?”–you want to hide away from the world, instead of facing the changes and stepping forward in front of it.

People will ask questions. People will sympathize. People will judge. I try not to get in other people’s sensitive business, and I appreciate it when other’s don’t pry upon my private matters (which is arguably not private, since it involves the family).

One thing I realized, though: as stupid and pointless it seems to reach out in support of someone going through a crisis you have no idea how to sympathize with, or have no clue how to even relate to, it still means a lot to those who are hurting.

Satellite Call (Sarah Bareilles)

I thought of this as I listened to this song:

“Even though I am here, down on Earth… even though I have no understanding of the solitude of life you face out in the open-ended blackness of space, I care deeply about you. And whatever it may mean to you, however you may take it, I am sending you my sincerest thoughts and love. You are not alone. ”

Thank you.

 
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Posted by on February 15, 2015 in Life

 

The Verdict: Buy or Sub?

After sampling various MMOs during the last year, my personal conclusion is that buy-to-play is the most optimal choice for MMO development.

The main reason as a player, is that there is less pressure to progress and to keep up. You can play at your own pace. And this means that developers don’t have to create filler content for the sake of having new content to justify the sub fees. When they do produce a substantial content update, they can charge for it, and I will pay for it when I am ready for it.

In my mind, for sub fees to work, there needs to be either: enough casual and/or social activity for all players to participate in beyond grinding; so much content that you can hardly catch up to the pace of development (which is highly unlikely); or players feel like they belong there, and there is a friendly community that is always there for them.

World of Warcraft seems to do pretty well in at least two of these areas. Final Fantasy XIV may even have all three covered. I haven’t touched Elder Scrolls Online, so I can’t comment on them.

WildStar has a great community, but very little “filler” content to do when you just want to relax, and they admittedly failed in their attempt at unleashing an avalanche of constant content.

I still play WildStar because I enjoy the combat that much. My playtime limits me in what I can do, and I usually only get one group instance in at a time, but when I do, it’s extremely satisfying. It is mentally draining, though, and not something I want to do for hours on end. I would really love for some more truly casual content, like in-game board games and such.

I still need to dip my feet deeper into the waters of Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World, since I have them both. I’m still stuck in the early zones, as I only hop on very casually. Alas, that is the downside of buy-to-play games: you can always play them later.

Well, now that I’m contradicting myself, I probably need to redact my earlier statement.

A sub game works. It just needs to be a second home for players, and not just a sports gym to hop into after work.

To tell you the hypocritical truth: what do I really want to play right now?

Triple Triad.

 
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Posted by on February 12, 2015 in Gaming

 

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The Dilemma of the MM in MMOs. Part II.

This is a continuation of a two-part series. Click here to read the first.

-Where is the story?-

Traditional MMORPGs are story-driven games.

A story-based MMORPG takes what is largely an immersive, single-player experience of video games and provides a setting for thousands to play the same content alongside one another. An MMO provides a unique twist to the single-player experience by saying, “To progress in this story, you can not go alone. You must do this -together-“.

In a “sand-box” type game, the player interaction becomes the story. The developers need only to provide the framework for the community to interact with one another. Second Life, Minecraft, and (to an extent) EVE Online come to mind. While “theme-park” games, like World of Warcraft, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and WildStar, are heavily dependent on the developers to advance the game story.

When players reach the end of the story in an MMO, they must find something else to do until more content is produced. And the usual solution for developers is to give players the old carrot-on-a-stick:

“Here are some ‘hard-mode/veteran/heroic’ dungeons for you to complete while we catch up. Here’s more loot for you to aspire to. Here are some cute pets that you can only get if you dedicated enough to spend hundreds of hours in acquiring it.” These are things players can do to differentiate themselves from the crowd and say, “I achieved things others have not!”

-The Story as a Launchpad-

Story-driven games can only produce so much content in a period of time. Therefore, time sinks, gold sinks, and the dreaded RNG become practical and arguably necessary tools for developers to buy themselves time until the next batch of content is ready. And since story-content can only be experienced in its fullest glory the first time through, rewarding players with gear for clearing them repetitively seem very economical.

Instanced content, which is supposed to provide an immersive experience in a multi-player environment, becomes a gear farm. The expansive world maps are left largely untouched, and players only visit them to complete “daily quests” to keep up with the developers’ artificially-constructed progression barrier. The rich, immersive world with its brilliant lore is left to gather dust under the giant hamster-wheel of Progression.

What happens when the developers play catch-up with the story? Usually, it means more story-quests, more dungeons, more raids, and more loot. And what next? More story, more dungeons, more raids, more loot. And because the lull between content is the real majority of the gameplay, the shiny gear–not the story—becomes the end goal for many players.

And here-in lies the dilemma.

The focus of MMOs seem to have shifted, sadly, from one which is story-centered, to one of chasing loot. There is an inherent contradiction here. The game is built up around a story, but the story is no longer the key aspect of the gameplay. It has become an excuse for the grind. The story is there simply as a stepping stone to get to it. Is this okay? Or do we need a paradigm shift regarding this issue. I hope I am not alone in feeling that the story must be the star—the focal point—of the game, and not just a launchpad.

-You Have Been Challenged-

I still think there is room for progress here, even in this tried-and-true genre. Each game is trying to address this situation in its own way: Guild Wars 2 is trying hard to implement an evolving story in its game, while keeping it accessible for players who have missed it. WildStar does many things to make the backstory very intriguing, and the in-game lore system with its collectable encyclopedic archives is a great innovation to keep lorehounds satisfied. FFXIV does a great job at keeping its timely content cycle with continuing story-missions in each patch. These “innovations” should only be the beginning, however. They are still merely bandaging the wounded results of an out-dated, inefficient system.

I would like to see more non-quest related ways to interact with the world that can deepen the relationship between the players and the story. I would like to see systems that rewards players for interacting with the story-content in a meaningful way. I would like to see rewards that do not involve stat boosts and gear acquisition, but rewards that provide you with an increased immersion-experience.

Is the “sand-box” style MMO the answer for a lot of these issues? I don’t know. “Theme-park” MMOs have beautifully conceived worlds with wonderful stories which pure sand-box games do not. For the story to stay alive, however, we need to truly feel that we are a part of the world we choose to spend so much of our lives in. We need a world which is so alive and interactive that people log-in to -be- part of the story, and grinding for better gear is no longer the only logical way to play. I know that it is difficult to break out of the mold. The genre is definitely evolving, one step at a time–I hope in the right direction. All I can do as a fan is to challenge the way we think about MMOs and hope that in time, the gaming community will find a solution to these recurring dilemmas.

 
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Posted by on February 10, 2015 in Gaming

 

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The Dilemma of the MM in MMOs. Part I.

Disclaimer: My observations here are mostly based on story-based “theme-park” MMORPGs.

I’ve attempted to play MMORPG’s a few times. And for one reason or another, I have never been able to fully invest myself into them. With the launch of Wildstar, I have jumped head-first into the life of a MMO player while playing catch-up to the mindset and lingo that veteran players have developed over time. There is one recurring experience that I have, however, that is really bugging me throughout these games that I’ve played, and I want to lay them out on the table here.

-Immersion-

Immersion = the play-style focused on getting the most immersive experience from their game time. The focus is in enjoying the world and the content as they come.

What does immersion mean in the context of gaming? Sure, there is the kind of immersion where you are so focused on beating the challenges that you start sweating, your heart begins pounding, and you forget all about the passage of time. Here, however, I am talking about another type of immersion that is such a focal feature of an MMORPG: diving head-first into the story, the lore, the characters, and the world.

Single-player games are great at creating this level of immersion. You become lost in it like you do in your favorite novel or movie. The players can take as much time as they want in experiencing the world and move on when they are ready. They can stop if they notice something interesting, or go back if they missed something. Everything is scripted and timed perfectly to ensure you have a great experience.

A story-based MMO is also brimming with life. The world is detailed. NPCs have back-stories. The environments are beautiful if you can stop to take it all in. And all of this is evident when you embark on your first adventure…until you have to play with other people.

-Well, That Escalated Quickly-

Here is an example you may be familiar with (it has certainly happened to me).

You’ve just created your character and jumped into the world with your swords whirling, guns blazing. You meet the core characters, you help them with their crises, become Savior to their faction! You’re getting stronger with every new encounter and you’ve found a good groove.

Then the “MM” kicks in.

You join some other players who are running the dungeon that you want to attempt for the first time. You watch the cutscene, and when it ends, your party is nowhere to be found. On top of that, you see in the chat, “What are you doing, noob? Go watch them on YouTube on your own time.” They then proceed to rush from point A to point B to point C, ignoring all subsequent dialogue and cutscenes until the very end where they “gg” and exit.

Welcome to Progression

Progression = the play-style focused on getting better gear, moving on to the next available dungeon or raid, and completing the available content.

-The Fork in the Road-

Immersion is a solo player’s best friend. It probably prefers the casual community–the group who takes their time and is there for the story. The huge problem with casual play in an MMO is that it severely stunts progression. And if this is your playstyle, you will very often get left far behind by your peers.

Even if you do find a few friends willing to wait for you, progressing together with the same group of people for a sustained period of time is an extremely slow process. Completing an entire story-line in an MMO together is almost impossible unless your group is prepared to be left behind the story-train. To be able to completely immerse yourself into the lore, the characters and the environment; or to be able to simply goof off with friends while at the same time, pushing the story forward–you have to work really hard to find that kind of group in this style of game.

I can imagine that there is a moment in every MMO gamer’s experience where you are forced to make a decision. Do you choose the path of Immersion, or do you choose Progression?

People want to beat stuff. They want to level up. They want to beat the final boss. They want better gear. They want to finish the current content to advance to the next. Even if you do find friends who are willing to take the road of Immersion, if there is even one person in your group who’s expectation is Progression, there will be friction. And even worse, if your friends couldn’t wait for you and already beat that content, you will feel like a jerk for slowing everybody down and taking their time.

Unless you are in a premade group, you are not afforded the luxury of watching cutscenes before a dungeon or exploring different paths besides the optimal one. You often can’t stop to see the sights, or hear what the locals are murmuring about their current crises. Why? Because most people are pursuing progress. Therefore, expectation of any group content is normalized upward to Progression. And most people I expect, if they have to sacrifice Immersion in order to keep up, probably will.

-The Luxury of Being Single-

In a single player game, there is no separation between Immersion and Progression, because it is carefully crafted so that the pacing is just right. An MMO doesn’t have that luxury, unless they want to make it a Massively Single-player Game.

Personally, I am caught in a difficult place. I want to keep up. I want to become better and stronger. But, at the same time, I want my first trip through a game to be an experience; not a walkthrough. There is a massive hole in the system that needs to be filled–something that can bridge this massive gap between Immersion and Progression. And if MMO developers can figure this out, they will be fulfilling the needs of so many players who somehow feel this gap, but may even be unaware that it exists.

To be continued…

 
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Posted by on February 5, 2015 in Gaming

 

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