How To Eat EA’s Lunch

This post comes with a hidden suffix of “in 2007,” because right now EA’s lunch is FIFA lootboxes and you eat that by getting the FIFA license away from them somehow. You could also set their lunch on fire by convincing enough nations to ban their lootboxes. What I’m really talking about is how to out-Sims EA, which, much like Cities: Skylines out SimCity-ing EA, would be eating such a tiny side dish of EA’s lunch in 2019 that they probably wouldn’t notice.

But I do want someone to make Cities: Skylines but for the Sims, because although the Sims 4 lacks the spectacular cavalcade of failure that was SimCity 2013, its steady decay is just as bad for the series overall. The Sims 3 was already heavily monetized and microtransactioned, and the Sims 4 not only continued that trend, but had the gall to strip away nearly all the expansion content and even some core features of the Sims 3, then tried to sell everything piecemeal again.

The first Sims was released in January of 2000, on the wrong end of the Half-Life gap where video games released around the time of Half-Life 2 look closer to modern day graphics in 2019 than they do to video games released around the time of Half-Life 1, just a few years earlier. Like, sure, you can tell 2019 graphics are a huge upgrade, but the 1998-2004 graphics gap is even bigger than the 2004-2019 gap. All this to say, the Sims 2, released in 2004, could sell itself based on nothing but more graphical fidelity in your virtual dollhouse. On top of that, the Sims 2 was designed ground up to be a virtual dollhouse. It shipped with lots of bonafide characters in its pre-made neighborhood, not just generic-ish families that served as default friends and neighbors for mechanical purposes, but a neighborhood full of existing relationships and personal dramas to interact with.

Then the Sims 3 launched, and had a big ticket selling point: Neighborhoods were now completely open world, interconnected, living towns full of sims who went about their daily business holistically, not silo’d off into a bunch of lots each of which was its own world divided by loading screens. I don’t know how they pulled this off in 2009, because my 2017 laptop gives me 2-3 minute long loading screens when first loading a game and tends to start stuttering under the strain if I play too long. Regardless of how, this was again the kind of leap in technology that justified a new game and selling new expansion packs that were basically the same as the expansion packs for the old game, except they were for the new game. Some people are still Sims 2 adherents, but not many.

Then the Sims 4 dropped, and the fanbase legit split. The Sims 4, by virtue of receiving ongoing support, won the struggle overall, but Sims 3 communities remain intact while Sims 2 communities have mostly withered away to one guy posting content for the odd stray comment from his supportive dog. The Sims 4 was a technological step backwards, returning to silo’d lots divided by loading screens. Basic features like the toddler stage of life and even pools were not present at release for the Sims 4. In fairness to the Sims 4, the real essentials like the toddler life stage and pools were added in free content patches rather than sold as microtransactions (even though the Sims 4 is generally even more aggressive than the Sims 3 with microtransactions), and it did include some engine improvements that made one of the core features of the game – socialization – more believable and evocative. Back on the first hand, though, it also lacked the Sims 3’s incredibly flexible Create A Style system, which allowed for lots of flexibility in coloring wallpaper, flooring and roofing, and Sim clothing. Self-expression took a huge hit in favor of dynamically generated social drama. Those are both core features for the Sims, although they tend to appeal to different people, and I strongly suspect this is why the fanbase split. In terms of overall quality, sacrificing one for the other is a wash.

And just like SimCity vs. Cities: Skylines, EA can’t copyright much of anything that makes the Sims great. They have a few families like the Goths and the Altos and the Landgraabs who are recognizable to the fanbase and have some traction with the audience, but if you shipped your Sims-alike with the Mort family, people would get that it’s basically the same as the Goths and would be happy to pick up playing dolls with your Morts right where they left off with EA’s Goths. Despite having an audience who cares deeply about telling stories, the Sims is an almost purely technology and gameplay driven franchise. Anyone willing to develop the tech and polish to do it better can take over the entire fanbase. Now, that’s no mean feat. Indie devs riding a $100,000 Kickstarter would not be able to pull that off. But although Sims money pales in comparison to what it was back in 2007-ish, it’s still big money, and someone willing to do it right could plausibly see a very large return on the investment, significant upfront costs in developer expertise and literal money notwithstanding.

So how do you do it? How do you out-Sims the Sims?

Continue reading “How To Eat EA’s Lunch”

Reus

Rounding out the week in which I play and review random video games mostly from the Humble Bundle, let’s talk about something I dug out of the Humble Trove: Reus. Reus is a game in which you are some kind of disembodied Gaian planet consciousness. To begin with, the entire surface of the planet is covered in lifeless wasteland. Your goal is to turn that lifeless wasteland into a thriving human civilization. On the one hand, this is kind of anthropocentric, but on the other, human civilizations are more delicate and more volatile than any natural process (there are natural processes that are more delicate, and natural processes that are more volatile, but not only are these both very rare, none of them are simultaneously as delicate and as volatile as humanity – simultaneously challenging to maintain and a source of chaos and instability). Nothing’s stopping you from generating biomes and just watching them until the clock runs out, but it’s as easy as watching paint dry and about as exciting. The game revolves around tending to human civilizations mostly just ’cause nothing else would be particularly difficult.

Your means of interacting with the world are your four friendly giants: Ocean, Forest, Mountain, and Swamp. You can use these giants to create a total of five biomes: Ocean, forest, mountain, swamp, and also desert, which forms in the shadow of mountains. Human settlers come along to create villages in either forests, swamps, or deserts, but oceans are necessary to get the whole thing started and you need mountains to make deserts. Plus, different biomes can hold different resources, so even though mountains are too tiny to contain entire villages, you can still slap down copper on them, and if that mountain falls within the border of a village, they’ll start mining that copper.

In order to create different resource types past the most basic, you need the help of human ambassadors. Ambassadors from each of the forest, swamp, and desert villages unlock different powers on different giants, so whenever you have one available, you need to consider which giant to give it to. You get these ambassadors from helping villagers complete projects, like creating a marketplace, a harbor, an alchemy lab, or whatever, and in order to do that, you need to make sure the village has enough resources to provide sufficient food, wealth, and/or tech within their border to complete the project before the timer hits zero. You struggle against limited space within the borders of the village – each tile of the planet can only host one resource and they often have symbioses that can be hard to juggle, like a plant that provides more bonuses  when next to a mineral, or sometimes even when next to a specific other type of plant.

So you provide resources to give villagers the points they need to complete projects so they provide ambassadors that allow you to provide better resources. But also, if you develop a village too quickly, they become “greedy” and will send out raiding parties to destroy nearby villages. The greed wears off eventually, but only if you stop developing the village for a while. Your giants can attack the armies to protect the targeted villages, but every second they’re doing that, they’re not helping villages with their projects, plus, they do have finite health, and even though they can stomp all over a single army, at some point you will need to take some time out to heal them or they will be whittled down over time.

The game provides a couple of possible goals in the form of “developments” (read: achievements), the most straightforward of which is to increase global prosperity as much as possible before the game timer hits zero and your giants all fall asleep, prosperity being the total of all wealth, tech, and food. Other goals, nearly as obvious, are to increase a specific village’s prosperity as high as possible, to get a village with a certain amount of prosperity using no animals, no plants, or no minerals within their borders, to get a village to a certain amount of prosperity using only animals, plants, or minerals within their borders, to have a certain amount of food, wealth, or tech in use (which mostly means “within village borders,” although there’s also some mechanics for resource use I haven’t gotten into that aren’t really important to the overview) worldwide, or sometimes things like creating a “fishing village” that’s got a certain amount of prosperity and contains a certain number of ocean tiles within its border (because you can have ocean tiles within a village’s borders even though humans won’t build the village itself on top of it).

These weird setups can encourage you to do things that would normally be sub-optimal, like make a really big ocean. Ordinarily, that’s basically just a waste of tiles, but if you need a fishing village with at least five ocean tiles in their border, your options are to either leave the opposite shore desolate so that nobody ever settles there and ends up splitting the ocean in half, with neither village having five tiles, or else make a really big ocean such that even split in half both villages will have like seven tiles. Villages don’t actually grow that big most of the time, so this mostly just ends up with a weird empty abyss in the very middle, well outside the borders of both villages, but one of them did hit five tiles, so hey, mission accomplished.

The resource-placing puzzle is fun and highly varied, since you never know exactly what projects your human villages will go for. You might want a desert village to be pure wealth because deserts are good for that, and desert villages do trend strongly towards wealth-based projects, but they might land on building a shrine, which requires wealth and also food, and now suddenly you have to figure out how to get lots of food in a desert. The timer is also convenient for using Reus as a wind-down game between blocks of work, because you can say “now I’ll play Reus for half an hour” and there will be a very obvious breakpoint after half an hour of playing Reus, because a round of Reus is measured by an actual countdown, the goal being to get as much done before it runs out. Unfortunately, meta-progress through multiple rounds is measured by getting enough achievements to unlock longer round times, and my Reus playing may well come to an end now that I’ve hit the point where the obvious way to continue advancing is to start playing the new two-hour games that I’ve unlocked. Half-hour rounds were the perfect length for winding down between working for two-hour blocks, and hour-long rounds were probably a bit irresponsible but no worse than when I played two missions of Ace Combat Zero a day and sometimes very long missions came up. But at two hours, I would spend as much time on between-work cooldowns as actually working.

And that is the reason why, despite having clocked probably 10+ hours on the game in the last week and having plenty of achievements left to aim for, I’m probably not going to be playing a whole lot of Reus anymore. I will probably play one or two 120-minute rounds just to grab the low-hanging fruit available from having twice as much time in a round, but it’s something I’ll have to make a proper gaming session out of sometime when I have lots of spare time. I realize this is a weird use-case and probably won’t impact most people’s opinion on the game, but I’m really disappointed to have lost a game that’s perfect for thirty-to-forty minute chunks. I’m sure there’s another one out there that I haven’t completely mined out, I’ll just have to find it.

July Humble Monthly (The Rest)

Love is Dead is a fun little isometric platformer game where you can swap between controlling one of two zombies in love. In each level there are three screens, and on each screen (viewed in isometric view), your goal is to accomplish some specific objective and then reunite, plus there’s a pancake in the level somewhere, and you need a certain number of pancakes to advance from one world to the other, so better to grab them whenever you can. Sometimes the two lovers start separated and the only goal is to reunite, other times the lovers start together but need to split up to accomplish an objective like searching through a pet cemetery for their lost cat and dog, and must then reunite at the end. Naturally there are moving platforms, hostile zombies, crumbling platforms, and the like that require more of your reflexes than just walking across a screen to pick up a pancake, then turning around to walk back.

There are seven worlds and so far I completed all of 1 but have only nibbled on 2, so I don’t know if the game keeps up its new ideas and interesting mechanics through the whole thing, but it’s off to a promising start. There is a framing story, though I’m not sure if it’s ever going to grow beyond the excuse plot it was in the first world: the zombie lovers have lost their similarly deceased cat and dog and need to go and find them, and upon exhuming the pet cemetery and finding them not there, discover a friendly human who lets them know that the undead cat and dog were spotted heading into the nearby city. Is this going somewhere? Or is every world going to end with the cat and dog having been spotted going to ever more exotic and dangerous locales, with the only real plot beat being at the very end when the family is finally reunited? Only time will tell, and I’m trying to get a blog post covering three games out in two or three hours, so that’s time I don’t have. I will probably end up playing more of it in the future, though, because it’s cute and fun, so maybe I’ll have follow-up later.

Nairi: Tower of Shirin is an adventure game. I gave it 15 minutes on the merits of its art style, but lost interest at the first segment of actual gameplay. I’m not down for rubbing every item on my inventory against every bit of scenery until the plot finally agrees to move forward. I’d probably be happy to sit through this game as an animated movie, even if it did have a bunch of weird screen transitions and it was entirely sub-titled with no voice acting. A movie with some weird cost-saving stylization would be fine. A movie where I have to stop and solve a crossword puzzle every five minutes is not. I gave this one a whirl based on its art style (which is fantastic) and I wish I hadn’t, because now I wish I could gift it to someone who actually likes adventure games.

Mechanicus is a 40k-themed dungeon crawler in which you must lead techpriests and their servitors in battle against Necrons while crawling through a tomb world for techno goodies. It’s also got a bit of an XCom-y thing going where you don’t have a single dedicated party but instead have lots of little units, and you assign one party of them to a mission at a time. I played for less than an hour before running out of time before I needed to make this post, and that’s not nearly long enough to give a game like this a good once over, but in terms of “how valuable was this monthly bundle” I’m pretty confident I can already declare that Mechanicus is worth it on its own. Bear in mind the standard here is that most forms of entertainment cost about $3-$4 per hour and the Humble Monthly is $12/month (or slightly less if you buy in bulk), so really what I’m saying is that I anticipate it will take me at least another three hours to get bored of Mechanicus. That’s not a super high threshold to clear, but it’s not nothing, either.

Magic Superpower Personality Tests

Awaken Online tried to do a thing where the full dive MMO gave you a hidden personality test and gave you magic super powers based on it. This went very poorly, on account of the “personality types” had tons of overlap, to the point where some of them were practically synonymous. The general idea of “your personality gives you superpowers” is not a bad one, but rather than coming up with a list of elements and then working backwards to try and cram personality types into them, you’d be better off making use of existing personality categorizations that at least mostly work and assigning magic powers to them.

For example: Myers-Briggs gets a lot of criticism for being unscientific, and it is. All its numbers and letter codes gives people the impression that it’s the result of some sociological study or something, but it’s really just the result of two kinda smart people sitting in armchairs and trying to come up with a way of categorizing people’s personalities, then declaring victory after coming up with four binary switches that felt mostly right. But people strongly identify with their Myers-Briggs personality types and that’s good enough for fiction.

Now, one of the major failings of Myers-Briggs that you’ll have to address is that it treats its four personality axes as binary switches, but quite a few people are close enough to the middle that they can flip letters based entirely on how their day has been going. So you’ll want a set of four opposed pairs of magical power, but you’ll also want to leave room for most people not being strongly attenuated along all four axes. Maybe not being strongly attenuated means you don’t get any magic or maybe you get a reduced form of both.

‘Course, that puts it on you to come up with four opposed pairs of magical voodoo. DiSC personality types are already in a set of four, a 2×2 grid of people-oriented vs. task-oriented and leader vs. follower types, which means you can assign them the classical four elements and call it a day. DiSC’s inspirational personality type is a people-oriented leader whereas their conscientious personality type is a task-oriented follower, so let’s call inspirational fire and conscientious water because they’re opposites like that (or maybe we’d want to make inspirational air and conscientious earth, depending on how we want to assign the other two, whatever). DiSC personality types also usually come with a primary and secondary, and you could either ignore the secondary or let everyone be multiclass.

Option three: The five emotions from Pixar’s Inside Out are based on real psychological research, although they discarded Surprise on account of it being too similar to Fear. You could use the Pixar five or the original research paper’s six. Either way, everyone has all of the emotions to one degree or another, so this would definitely be less of a “only firebenders know firebending” setup and more of a “everyone knows firebending but some people are especially good at it” setup.

You might be able to wring something out of astrology. A major problem here is that astrological personality types are usually phrased as “[thing] but also [opposite of that thing]” and therefore mean nothing at all, or at minimum declare that a sign is predisposed to a certain behavior without presenting any particular alternatives. Like, people criticize the Myers-Briggs for being a horoscope, but it actually does tell you that you’re extroverted and therefore not introverted (or vice-versa), and in fact its major failing is being too certain in that pronouncement, and failing to account for people who are not really strongly predisposed to either trait.

Taking Sagittarius as an example because it happens to be my birth sign (assuming we use the Babylonian system and not the modern one, ’cause it turns out stars move around sometimes), allegedly Sagittarius is supposed to be full of wanderlust and stuff. This describes me not at all, in that I am so attached to staying in my room that I have to make an exertion of will not to get DoorDash to deliver 100% of my meals and never eat out or even go grocery shopping ever again (which, in addition to not being great for mental health, is also something I can’t afford). But it’s not like I have literally never gone traveling or that I reacted like a neurotic cartoon character when I did, so if you wanted to stretch and deform the definition of Sagittarian wanderlust until it fit me, you could, because there’s no explicitly stated opposed trait that it stands in opposition to. Myers-Briggs declares “you are an introvert, and therefore not an extrovert,” horoscopes declare “you are a Sagittarius, and therefore you like to explore.” Okay, sure, but in what context? As opposed to what? Who out there recoils in horror and says “ugh, exploration, I hate exploration”?

But if you’re willing to write up twelve different magic powers and write your characters to match the alleged personality traits, it can still work for fiction. Just ’cause star signs have no connection to personality types in real life doesn’t mean they can’t in whatever fantasy world someone wants to write a book in. There’s definitely a lot of mythic foundations to build on when using star signs. Just saying “the magic of Pisces” feels like it means something just ’cause Pisces is super old.

Or you could throw darts at an exhaustive list of emotions and assign elements to whatever they land on until you get bored or run out of elements to assign. Awaken Online did that, and it’s a top 5,000 book, so hey, clearly it’s not a deal breaker for its target audience.

Marvel Interactive Universe

I’ve thought for a while that a Marvel Interactive Universe would be a cool thing to have, like the MCU but for video games. Instead of trying to skip to the end with Ultimate Alliance style team-ups, give major characters dedicated games and bring them together for team-ups after they’re established as individual heroes.

The secret sauce of the MCU is in consistently getting good people to make their movies for them, so if you were going to make the MIU, the question is less in exactly what gameplay mechanics you’d use game by game, and more in what studios you would hand different properties off to in order to get the best gameplay. That’s the challenge I plan on tackling here: Picking which studios should get which characters. In order to do that, we do need to assign heroes a genre of gameplay, but we don’t need to figure out exactly what features will make it stand out from the rest of their genre, we just need to figure out what studio is good enough to figure that out for themselves.

Spider-Man is both a free space and something you probably can’t lead with. Sony still has those rights and they won’t part with them until you are an unstoppable MCU-style juggernaut and they have consistently failed to make a profit off of the character themselves. The thing is, the 2018 Spider-Man game was fantastic and my recommendation for using Spidey as the headliner for a new MIU is just to go to Insomniac, ask them who was in charge for Spider-Man 2018, and give the Spidey game to those exact same people. Sony can and have done that for themselves and have no reason to let my hypothetical project poach the character.

I don’t know the video game copyright status of Marvel’s characters very well, but I’m going to go with the same copyright status the MCU had when it got started: Spidey, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men went with their respective film franchises, which means the Avengers are our only big names left. Fortunately, the success of the MCU means we’re on much more solid ground in terms of name recognition. Whereas the MCU had to take Iron Man from someone people barely even recognize and turn him into the vanguard of what would eventually become the most ambitious film franchise in Hollywood history, our Avengers games’ main problem is going to be stepping out of the shadow of their beloved film counterparts.

Continue reading “Marvel Interactive Universe”

Far From Home

Spider-Man: Far From Home is generally pretty spectacular. No pun intended, it’s just almost impossible to praise a Spider-Man story without drawing on one of the many adjectives that have been used to describe him. Really, it’s a testament to how incredible Spider-Man media has gotten lately that Far From Home isn’t the best Spider-Man story we’ve gotten so far.

But in keeping with the theme of this blog, I want to complain about its biggest missed opportunity. Specifically, regarding the sub-plot in which (very mild spoilers) Peter Parker gets a new costume and pretends to be “Night Monkey,” a European knock-off of Spider-Man, in order to prevent people from noticing that famous New York super hero Spider-Man had a brief stint in Europe that happened to exactly coincide with Peter Parker’s class trip. At no point in this sub-plot is there a scene where “Night Monkey” puts on a fake British accent to pretend to be European, and Ned comments that it’s an awful accent and he should probably just avoid talking in the Night Monkey costume altogether. Maybe they thought it was too obvious? Because I surely can’t be the only one who thought of this.

On a similar note, Infinity War and Endgame represented probably our only chance to have Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberpatch reference Sherlock Holmes on screen together, and it never happened. All it would’ve taken is one line! The MCU’s meme generation department is asleep at the wheel here!

July Humble Monthly (Mostly)

July’s Humble Monthly bundle had two big headliners that they dropped early to try and entice people into subscribing: Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and Moonlighter. The whole bundle just dropped and I’m picking through it now, and some of the other half-dozen bundled games are pretty good.

Road Redemption is a biker gang story taking place in what I assume is a perfectly accurate depiction of Australia’s interior, a racing game crossed with a healthy dose of combat which is also a rogue-lite. You run a gauntlet of races (and race-related challenges) in which murdering the other contestants is a valid and, indeed, dominant strategy for victory, receiving cash for upgrades if you win and taking health penalties if you lose. Once you get murdered yourself, you go back to the beginning, but you also get some XP to spend on permanent upgrades. It’s a fun timekiller, but I’m finding the gauntlet approach kind of kills its ability to be a timekiller. Individual races (or race-y challenges) only take 5-10 minutes, which is perfect when I just want to decompress for a bit while transitioning from working on one thing to working on another, but an entire run takes a full 1-2 hours, and I don’t love the action/racing hybrid enough to want to dedicate entire sessions of gaming to it like that.

60 Parsecs! is a game in which you are in a space station and nuclear war has just been declared on Earth. There’s a missile headed right for you, so you must quickly grab as many crew and supplies from the station as you can in the sixty seconds before the missile impact and then skedaddle in an escape rocket. After the initial panicky escape, the game is about careful resource management as you attempt to survive long enough to find a planet to colonize. I have no idea if you can ever reach a win condition or if you just keep going until you die, because my first two playthroughs ended with my captain (and often everyone else) dead in less than a month. I think maybe the goal is to live for sixty days, in keeping with the whole sixty [unit] theme the game has so far? The game has a 60s-ish sort of Hanna Barbara reminiscent art style and has a very good juxtaposition between the initial sixty second panic and the slow decision making of the subsequent hour-ish of gameplay. There is a weird drawback where the longer you survive, the worse the pace of the game gets, as a successful run means more time between the panic bits, and you don’t tend to run into a whole lot of new content unless you get farther than you have before (although it’s possible this is because I’m still getting the hang of the game and lived long enough to reach the planet only once out of my two playthroughs, so maybe there’s more randomization of what planet it is and what conditions are like there that I just haven’t seen).

Kind Words is a lovely idea poorly executed. It’s not a game so much as an app where you can send a request for messages and get replies. There’s a generic avatar sitting at a desk who does different animations based on whether you’re currently reading a note, writing a response, etc., but it’s decorative more than interactive. Each message is limited to being about a single paragraph long (roughly the length of our new beefed up 280-character tweets). People are encouraged to put out messages requesting encouragement and support for their problems, and to write replies to other people who’ve made requests. Fantastic idea, but I find myself slipping constantly into one of the less helpful things to do in these situations, trying to solve the problem. Deprived of the ability for two-way communication, though, I don’t know what else to do. Normally when having this kind of conversation you want to 1) ask questions and 2) rephrase their concerns back at the person using slightly different language to show that you’re listening and understand. With badly limited space and no way to get a chain of responses going, neither of these is as effective as they would be in regular voice or text chat. Incidentally, you can get a similar service from 7cups.com, except it’s in text chat, which works much better. I find myself keeping Kind Words open in the background for the chill music while just having regular 7 Cups chats. On the other hand, 7 Cups’ efforts to monetize itself always come across as kind of exploitative and sinister. It never stops people mid-chat and demands money from them to continue the conversation, but it does use a lot of gamification tools that feels manipulative.

Moonlighter was apparently a big enough deal to be a headline title. I’d never heard of it, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn if it had caught on and become at least momentarily famous while I wasn’t looking. It’s got Zelda-esque combat, randomly generated dungeons, and loot that, instead of selling to a shop, you sell from a shop, setting prices yourself and responding to shifts in supply and demand, and making investments into both your own shops and other, specialty shops that can sell you things like weapons and armor or magical enchantments. It’s got a good pace of dungeon crawling at night and then shop managing during the day. I’ve just about mined out the shop management aspect after a little less than an hour of gameplay, which means either this game is about to hit me with a curve ball to keep things interesting or it’s actually a shallow prototype that’s got the foundation of really good mechanics but fails to keep things interesting long enough to get anywhere near that mythical fifth dungeon. If guess-and-checking prices until you hit upon the one that people like best is all the shop end of the game has going for it, then I’d rather I just have a regular shop to sell my goods to so I can focus on the dungeon crawling, but we’ll see if things get deeper as I go on.

I haven’t tried Mechanicus, Love is Dead, or Nairi: Tower of Shirin yet, and will probably spit out another blog post when I do. These game review posts actually take longer than a book review post, but they don’t require me to commit to seeing a particular book all the way through, so as long as I’m still trying to unbury myself from my Kickstarter workload, we’ll probably be seeing more of them. On a related note, I may end up dropping Spider-Man and Philosophy halfway through to jump back into some regular fiction. I feel kind of glutted on non-fiction lately and I’m hoping I’ll have an easier time getting content out if it’s focused on fiction again. Not sure what I’ll read, but there was a Humble Book Bundle I grabbed recently and I’ll probably stick my nose into one of those.

Humble Trove: Roombo

The Humble Trove is a collection of indie games that you get access to if you’re subscribed to the Humble Monthly. Unlike the Humble Monthly, the trove is a constantly expanding list of games, and there’s some really good ones in there. Torchlight and its sequel are both very good action RPGs (in the “kind of like Diablo” sense), Overlord 1 and 2 have some rough edges but are pretty much the only games doing the “play as Sauron” schtick, so worth checking out, they’ve got a bunch of old X-Wing vs. Tie Fighter games which I have not yet played but which are apparently great, there’s the Bard’s Tale reboot which is a snarky parody of computer RPGs and comes packaged with the original three games from the 80s which are oldschool computer RPGs played completely straight because they are from that era (with all the charm and frustration that entails), and (in addition to the sea of games I haven’t played and don’t recognize) several indie experimental titles like THOR.N, which is some kind of dystopian nightmare where supporting an evil government’s war machine has been gamified and whose world was intriguing enough that I was disappointed when it turned out to only be about thirty minutes long, Fortune 499, which I’ve talked about before, and Orwell, a game wherein you are an agent for an evil government surveillance program, but whose clunky interface is so difficult to wrestle with that “why is this evil government surveillance program so poorly designed” overshadowed any message about actual evil government surveillance.

And then there’s the game I really wanted to talk about today, which is Roombo: First Blood. It’s Home Alone except instead of a precocious and bloodthirsty eight year old, you are a bloodthirstier yet adorable roomba. You are a roomba, your family is out, one or more burglars have broken in, and you need to use your roomba skills to straight up murder the intruders. It feels like someone had an idea for an animated short, but only knew how to make video games, so did that instead, and talking about the game’s mechanics feels like spoiling all the jokes for a short film that was never made.

Your avatar is a roomba, although you can enter “hacking” mode to open and shut doors, turn on fire sprinklers, and cause ceiling fans to spin so fast they pop off and become a booby trap, so it’s really more like you’re playing as a smart house whose only mobile component is a roomba (although it is game over if the roomba itself is destroyed, so apparently the smart house’s brain is located in the roomba for some reason). You can suck up soapy water from the shower drain and spit it out in puddles to try and slip up the burglars. There’s a knife in the kitchen that you can grab (somehow?) and use to stab the intruder(s). The burglars leave behind muddy footprints while walking around and also a bunch of blood whenever injured, and as you suck up more burglar blood, your rage meter fills up. Once maxed out, you can ram the burglar. Once all intruders are dead, you have one minute to clean up as much of the house of bootprints and bloodstains as possible before your family gets home, with a better grade based on how clean you can get the house.

This creates a progression where initially the roomba goes around gathering weapons and preparing booby traps, injuring the burglars to get them bleeding. Once enough damage has been dealt to the burglars, you suck up the blood to become enraged and ram them. This does no more damage than normal and the burglars can stomp you to pieces pretty quick once they realize that you’re a threat (but they ignore you at first, which is both strategically interesting and more immersive, in that it feels like burglars would initially ignore a roomba (the fools!) in the hypothetical comedy short this game feels like it was based off of), but it means you don’t have to set up a specific trap in advance, you just aim yourself at them and press space bar, so you want to make sure your ram finishes them off. Then you run around cleaning the place up.

You can see how this maps to the progression of a comedy short. A family leaves sometime around Christmas, when rampant consumerism becomes somehow magical and theft of material goods therefore becomes the violation of something sacred rather than just super inconvenient. During the one season when having stuff becomes sacred, a burglar breaks in. The family roomba activates, and its adorable little LED eyes narrow in anger at the intruders. The roomba activates a few booby traps, causing comical injuries to the intruder. Eventually, the roomba confronts the burglar directly and rams the burglar to death. The roomba then races around the house, cleaning up all the blood and debris and making sure the house is just like when the family left it when they get back.

Once you know the layout of the house and what can and can’t be used as a booby trap in what way, there’s not much else to do except optimize your burglar murder in such a way as to make for easy clean-up. There’s a hidden joke there in itself, in that after your first few games, once you get the hang of it, you’ll start thinking like a killer roomba – which means you start focusing less on killing the intruders at all and more on killing them in such a way that they don’t leave too big of a mess for you to clean up before the Joneses get home.

But Roombo does still get kind of old after the first hour-ish, and I find myself kind of wishing I could watch the hypothetical short that this game feels like it was based off of.

Side note: Although older posts may get retroactively recategorized, this is actually the inaugural post for the “video games” category, so it’s kinda funny that my ultimate conclusion is that I wish this video game had instead been a (short) movie.

Digging Through The June 2019 Humble Bundle

What’s the Humble Bundle got for me this month?

First off, the good: Duskers is a game where you pilot robot drones to scavenge derelict spaceships that are now full of some kind of alien xenomorph thing. They’re clunky, slow, and so far as I’ve gotten, unarmed, so the game isn’t about shooting them, but rather about using motion sensors and remote door controls to trap them in harmless rooms while you pick the corpse clean and hopefully figure out why everyone got killed by xenomorphs.

911 Operator is a ton of fun for like two or three hours and is then repetitive and boring, constantly disappointing me with its traces of good gameplay but never quite having enough content to deliver a full experience. I like that you can import Google maps data from your own city to play anywhere (not only is Salt Lake City available, but even tinier towns like Provo and St. George, the latter known even in Utah as “the place that is between Salt Lake City and Las Vegas”).

The problem is, there’s a career mode that uses pre-fixed cities, but which interacts with those cities as unique cultural or geographic entities so non-existently that I don’t see why it’s not possible to play the career mode on city maps of your choice. The only difference between career mode and free mode that I can discern is that in career mode you are guaranteed to get each 911 call once with no repeats and in a specific order, which seems like something you could’ve done with any city, and would’ve been a great way to get each call while still personalizing it to wherever you happen to live. The calls are pretty well voice-acted (with a few exceptions) and often pretty compelling. Oh, also you change cities so quickly in career mode that the entire mini-game of accumulating money by responding to emergencies so you can buy new vehicles and hire new staff is basically meaningless, because you won’t have enough money to buy up even one new team.

Overall, 911 Operator is kinda fun but This Is The Police is the same thing, but better, and there’s two of those now. Probably only worth checking out if you really like TitP but have mined out those first two games or if you really like the idea of directing fire engines and ambulances in addition to cops. As it happens, I do really like that idea, so I had plenty of fun with it, but I can definitely recognize its flaws.

The big ticket item was Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. I don’t care about military shooters, like, at all, so I haven’t even redeemed it. I guess drop by my Discord (link up top) and let me know if you want a free copy, ’cause I don’t want mine. Likewise, Red Faction Guerilla Re-Mars-tered comes from the seventh generation console shooter school and I just don’t care about that genre. I appreciate the pun but I’m not going to bother playing.

Paratopic is an atmospheric horror game using early PS1 graphics. Imagine the first Silent Hill with worse art direction. I forgave that kind of thing in Resident Evil and Silent Hill because there was nothing better, but it’s 2019. If you can’t climb up to at least PS2 level graphics, you can’t do atmospheric horror.

Finally, Pool Panic is a game where you knock a cue ball around with the digital billiards gameplay you’ve probably encountered before, except the cue ball is a character and you have to navigate him around environments. The whole thing has a vaguely Rick and Morty-esque aesthetic, but I make no promises as to whether it will have Rick and Morty-esque ideas or humor. And that show’s aesthetic is actually pretty terrible.

The Humble Monthly is hit and miss. Usually each bundle will have at least one game that’s worth playing no matter who you are, but will also have some amount of junk. The monthly costs between $11 and $12 a month depending on how much you buy at once, and most entertainment turns out to be worth somewhere between $3-$4 per hour, so if you have even four hours of fun with any given Humble Monthly, you’re breaking even. For June, naturally if you care about either of the big games you’re set, but I think Duskers and 911 Operator together are probably worth it even if you don’t have my peculiar fascination for saving the city through the power of judicious resource management.

July’s headliner is Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, which is one of those “experience” games where whether or not you want to play it depends largely on whether or not you want a window into the mind of a schizophrenic Pict. I do think it’s neat how it uses our willingness to assume the existence of the supernatural in a historical setting to get us to blindly accept what turn out to be psychotic delusions.

I Wish Game Dev Tycoon Had More Competition

Being able to make a living off of my creative work is my driving motivation in life and has been for some three or four years now. Thus, naturally, I like games like Game Dev Tycoon, where I get to pretend for a bit that doing this is quick and easy. Unfortunately, Game Dev Tycoon specifically is kind of meh.

Now, don’t get the wrong impression. GDT is not shovelware. It starts you out somewhere ambiguously in the 80s (time is tracked as years since game start, not actual years, which allows the pace of events to be set faster or slower by a drop down) and takes you through to the near future, and demonstrates a pretty solid understanding and appreciation for video game history on the way, it’s updated itself to account for the release of the eight generation of consoles, including the fairly recent Nintendo Switch, and has speculative ninth generation consoles from Sony and Microsoft. And while the game isn’t super deep, it isn’t a SimCity 2013, either. If you sit around doing nothing, you will not end up with a studio that is lawless, flooded with sewage, and on fire, but somehow still turning a profit and steadily growing. You can go bankrupt if too many of your games flop, and in fact, early on two failed titles in a row will do the trick (an unrealistic amount of breathing room for a small studio, but being able to rebound from failed experiments by picking something reliable is unquestionably a better gameplay experience). There’s even fun little references that you might never even notice until they’re pointed out to you, like how your starting garage studio in 1984-ish has a DeLorean under a tarp on the far wall, a cheeky implication that you’ve used it to time travel back to the beginning of the post-crash era of video games.

But although your input matters at all and it can even take a bit of analysis to get the hang of how to train your staff once you become a larger company, for the most part, the gameplay of Game Dev Tycoon is in playing it safe and recreating what came before. Even very effective studio management from a very well trained team won’t save your game from a bizarre and unpopular genre/topic/audience combination. This is certainly realistic, but Game Dev Tycoon isn’t about realism, it’s about fantasy. That’s why even a very early studio can bounce back from a single flop, giving them time to learn from their mistake when most small studios couldn’t realistically survive a single failed game. Although it is possible to use on-the-ball time/staff-management to do quirky runs like “every game has the same target audience” or, God help you, “every game has the same topic,” doing so isn’t challenging, it’s boring.

Optimizing your staff and development is pretty straightforward after your first playthrough (and your first playthrough was probably a standard “let’s just make good games based on market trends” run), and after that, an intentional handicap to your review scores and sales just means it’s harder to stay on top of the tech curve which means you spend more time between unlocks. The game just isn’t dynamic enough for drastically changing your approach from one game to another to be worth it. There’s one optimal way to make each kind of game and, like, five types of game, so once you’ve got those optimized, you’re still shifting sliders around, but only because you can’t save presets. The only actual choice you’re making is whether the game is Action, Adventure, RPG, Strategy, Simulation, or Casual, each of which has an optimum balance of development time spent on graphics as opposed to sound as opposed to world design and etc. etc., and each of which has an optimal list of features. You can mix and match those genres, but each combination can also be optimized and only a few matches are viable. Action-Strategy doesn’t require a specific approach to work, it just automatically takes a bad genre crossover penalty.

The only thing that’s different from one playthrough of Game Dev Tycoon to another is which four topics you start with and what order you can unlock new ones in. Since each topic has an intuitive and optimal match-up to genre and target audience, only one variable is really changing here. Technically, the job applicants you get when seeking staff also vary, but the differences are too small to really make a difference. Ultimately, it’s very easy to get a few design-heavy devs, a few technology-heavy devs, and to train and assign them appropriately to different tasks during development to make high-rated games consistently, so you just do that, the same way, every time. You aren’t mastering a system. You’re learning a recipe.

Pewdiepie’s Tuber Simulator had a similar thing where different video topics were more or less popular at different times, but it also had a mechanic whereby you only have three video ideas to pick from, each on a different topic taken from a list of…I think eight? Maybe ten. The point is, you get a random selection of less than half of all topics to pick from, so sometimes you have to make do with something that you don’t have a whole lot of points in or which is pretty played out in the current market. When you’re playing Tuber Simulator, every time you go to make a new video, you have to make a decision, and you can’t do it completely on auto-pilot. Sometimes it’s obvious, and the topic you’re best at is also the thing that’s currently trending and it’s one of your three available selections, but sometimes you have to make a choice between something you’re good at and something that’s popular, and sometimes your gamer/horror ‘tuber has to make a cooking video because it’s the least bad idea they have today. Mechanics like that keep the game engaging, and Game Dev Tycoon could really benefit from them.