January Humble Choice

I was a wee bit distracted in January, but now I’m dusting myself off and going through the January Humble Choice. This means it’s way too late for someone to decide based on my description whether they want to buy it, so I’m really just kinda spinning my wheels about what kind of games I add to my backlog, but hey, it helps fill out the queue.

Doom Eternal is this month’s headline game, which means you already know how it works. I’m giving this one a pass because I’ve heard it’s a difficulty spike compared to Doom 2016, and a game like Doom is a game I want to breeze through effortlessly. If I weren’t giving it a pass, I’d probably already own it.

Tribes of Midgard is some kind of build-y explore-y game themed around vikings fighting off mythological monsters, and this is hitting my twenty cliche pile-up alarms way too hard. Backlog’s too big to let something like this in when I’ve already got plenty of build-y explore-y games, especially when this one has an emphasis (like many of these games do) on PvE multiplayer. I like PvE multiplayer, but the reality is I’m never gonna find a group.

Encased is a post-apocalyptic dystopian sci-fi isometric RPG with tactical combat. I’m worried that this will, like build-y explore-y games, end up becoming something I wear out of long before I get down through the layers of the backlog to reach also-rans like Encased, but I haven’t hit that point yet so I’ll stick Encased in the backlog just in case this genre turns out to be like Metroidvanias where I just never get tired of them.

Olliolli World is a skateboarding platformer game that looks mediocre. I don’t normally put a huge emphasis on strong visuals, but a game with this premise can only hope to lure me in if it’s got a really strong style, and while Olliolli World is clearly trying to do that, I’m not vibing with the result at all. Pass.

Grow: Song of the Evertree is some kind of Animal Crossing knock-off with less of a cutesy animals aesthetic and more of a fantasy aesthetic. It’s not full on dragons and wizards (from what I can tell), but the general tech level caps out at the 18th century and it’s all very pastoral. If executed well, this could be a fantastic cozy game, so I am absolutely down to give it a shot.

Conan Chop Chop is some kinda mobile game? This is one of those things where it’s clearly totally dependent upon its IP to carry it, and while I like Conan, I am wise to the trick of slapping a good character/setting on a bad game.

Hokko Life is another Animal Crossing-esque game, one that looks like it’s got a much bigger emphasis on interior decorating? I suspect there’s definitely an audience for that, but I’m not in it. I can only sink so much time into designing a house or character or spaceship before I get bored and want to use it to actually do something, and if Hokko Life’s gameplay outside of the interior decorating is just Animal Crossing but again, then I’d rather just play Stardew Valley (or maybe Haunted Chocolatier, the Stardew Valley guy’s next project which looks spooky-cozy and I can’t wait).

The Serpent Rogue is the villain of its eponymous game, some kind of dragon-y thing, I guess? It isn’t directly depicted in any of the marketing I could find, but its evil aura is corrupting a fantasy world and you play as an alchemist in a plague doctor mask. It sells itself as a botanical RPG in which doing alchemy is a primary means of engaging with the world and I am very excited for that premise. Of course, a cool premise is no guarantee they’ll pull it off (for example, Moonlighter totally failed to do the “running a magic shop” premise in an engaging way – I’ve heard Reccetear is better), but I’m definitely going to play it and see for myself.

Three pick-ups from January, which is pretty standard. I’m still screaming back up well over 170 because 1) it also comes with Christmas, and a lot of people know to just give me games from my Steam wishlist for Christmas these days (the only other thing I really want are art assets for commercial projects, which isn’t exactly easy to shop for), and 2) I played very few video games in January as I nearly all of my free time was consumed by a sudden mad rush to pivot away from 5e (which ultimately turned out to be unnecessary, but I didn’t know that until January 26th). And we haven’t even got to February’s Humble Choice yet. I try not to get too wrapped up in the number, but as always, I do have one eye on it just because if it isn’t going down over time, that necessarily means there are games I want to play but never will.

Cook Serve Delicious Menus

Cook Serve Delicious is a Kongregate game from 2010 that fell through a time portal and emerged bleary eyed into 2020. Well, strictly speaking, Cook Serve Delicious itself, the original, was released in 2013, at exactly the moment when you’d expect devs to be making the jump from decaying Flash to proper indie game development, but the second two entries in the series still have that Flash game style, making them come across as time-displaced.

Specifically, Cook Serve Delicious is a game where you are the chef of a restaurant and must prepare orders. It’s almost exactly like those Papa’s Whateveria games except that instead of making lots of variations on a specific type of food, you are making all of the foods. There are a total of 37 different foods you can prepare from concessions stand pretzels up to steak and lobster, and you can have up to six of them on your active menu each day. Customers come in, ask for a random selection of the six, and you have to prepare it using gamepad or keyboard inputs before they get impatient and leave. Different orders can be slightly different from each other. For example, one of the types of food is a hamburger. A specific hamburger order might ask for any number between zero and three patties, might ask for bacon, lettuce, tomato, pickles, onion, etc. etc., and each ingredient corresponds to a button on the gamepad or a key on the keyboard. In order to keep a line from piling up, you need to slap the ingredients on quickly and without making mistakes.

The game has a neat self-correcting difficulty curve where getting perfect orders causes more “buzz” for your restaurant, which brings in more customers in the next game day. Each game day still lasts the same amount of real time (somewhere around 10-15 minutes), so higher buzz means more customers in the same span of time means greater frequency of customers means you have to make orders faster to keep the line moving. If people get impatient and leave, the order counts as botched and you get a buzz penalty for the next day, bringing things back down to where they’re easier to manage.

The original Cook Serve Delicious has just under 50 different types of food and about 300 total recipes, though they’re not evenly distributed. There are very few recipes for fish, for example: You either fillet, season, and cook, or fillet, season, add lemon, and cook. On the other hand, there’s something like thirty different ways to make a plate of nachos.

Cook Serve Delicious 2 and 3 have a much, much larger menu of food items, and having only just started on 2 (I tried 3 for a few hours back before I was making an effort to finish games), I’m not sure I like how quickly the menu expands, especially since the control scheme is different between 1 and 2/3, so none of the old recipes I’ve memorized carry over. Worse, CSD 2 has all recipes for a specific type of food unlocked from the beginning. In CSD 1, your starting hambuger came with the buns, the patties, cheese, bacon, lettuce, and tomato (but no onions, pickles, chicken patties, etc. etc.), and you had to pay to upgrade it, which increased the price but added several new recipes incorporating the new ingredients. This let you slowly build up familiarity with a food’s recipes over time. But in CSD 2, every recipe is unlocked as soon as you start in on a new food. This means that memorizing recipes is no longer practical without taking time aside to study this video game. In CSD 1, memorizing recipes was a matter of using level 1 of a food until you mastered it, without getting overly-ambitious and upgrading to level 2 early. In CSD 2, memorizing recipes is a matter of going into practice mode and beating your head against the complete arsenal of recipes for that food type until you’ve completely mastered them. CSD 2 is also more generous with time limits, so it seems like less memorization and more quickly processing the recipe is the intended method of play.

I still like CSD 2, but I liked CSD 1 better. A brief glance at the three games suggested they probably steadily improved over time, so I took them in order in hopes of avoiding exactly this kind of disappointment. C’est la vie.

This War Of Mine

When I was writing up my review of Siege Survival, I was a bit nervous because of how long it had been since I played This War Of Mine, and that I couldn’t remember playing it all the way through (turns out I actually did, though – when I reinstalled the game, one of the scenarios was marked complete). My review of Siege Survival was pretty unfavorable, which is unusual coming from a guy who’s pretty sympathetic to creators and much more likely to at least give a game the faint praise that it might be second or third or twelfth in line in a ranking of best games of its genre, but if you really like that genre you will eventually get down to it.

Most of that unfavorability stemmed from Siege Survival being medieval This War Of Mine and just not as good. It frames your peasant civilians huddling in the courtyard of a besieged castle as unambiguously helping the defenders to repel the invaders who, though I’m given to understand they’re about as sympathetic in the greater Gloria Victis setting, may as well be white walkers in Siege Survival itself. This takes the game’s narrative about nearly-helpless civilians struggling to survive a war zone and turns it into a narrative about civilians-turned-partisans playing a key role in keeping the siege defenders supplied by making nightly scavenging excursions. That’s neat, but the gameplay is largely unchanged (some tweaks are made to adapt the game to siege warfare rather than continuous modern battles, so the tech tree is drastically overhauled and the exact nature of the threats you face while scavenging are different, but the basic loop and the narrative it supports is unchanged), and TWoM’s gameplay is only gripping because of the narrative attached.

What I worried about while writing up Siege Survival is that maybe TWoM was worse than I remembered it. Maybe, once the novelty of the game had worn off, I just didn’t like that kind of gameplay. Having now replayed TWoM, I can confidently say that no, TWoM is just better. Having a bunch of soldiers sitting around in a castle manning the walls while you go on nightly excursions to keep them supplied is just not nearly as compelling as being on your own in a wartorn city. The soldiers of Siege Survival come across as equal parts selfish and stupid for not ditching the chainmail to go scavenging for themselves, the inability to fight the invaders under any circumstances fails to communicate the deadly danger posed by heavily armed opposition the way that TWoM does, where you can defeat soldiers, but it is very unlikely. They’re small details that affect the raw mechanics very little, but they make a world of difference to the narrative. You’re a small band of civilian survivors. The military patrols and criminal gangs are ordinary humans who die when they are shot with bullets just like you, but bullets are a precious commodity, you’re not a very accurate shot, and they travel in packs while you scavenge alone.

Continue reading “This War Of Mine”

Moonlighter Doesn’t Deliver On Its Premise

Moonlighter is a video game where you go into a dungeon to beat up some monsters, collect some loot, then put that loot out for sale in your item shop the next day. So, instead of selling loot to a shop, you run the shop, selling loot to other people. You still use your funds to buy upgrades to weapons and armor in order to defeat the bosses of four different dungeons and collect four keys with which to unlock the grand poobah finale dungeon and reveal the secret behind the dungeons.

Unfortunately, the game doesn’t live up to its premise.

The dungeon crawling half of the game is adequate. You’ve got a couple of different weapons with different movesets, enemies with different attack patterns, a dodge roll, and you can have up to five health potions equipped at a time, giving you a finite supply of healing in any specific battle while also having health potions as a long-term attrition resource that competes for limited inventory space with valuable loot. There’s also some inventory innovation with curses on items that do things like destroy an item in a specific direction (above, to the left, diagonally to the bottom right, etc.) when you return to town and which you’ll therefore want to put on an edge or corner where the curse falls harmlessly off the edge of the inventory, or requiring the item to be kept on the top or bottom row. Unfortunately, the inventory management this leads to is ultimately not much more consequential than regular. You’ll almost never have so many cursed items that you can’t find a place to put them without actually sacrificing inventory space. If they wanted to emphasize inventory Tetris, they would’ve been better off using actual Tetris shapes instead of everything being a single cell.

But the shop half of the game is perfunctory. It’s got exactly two significant differences from just dumping your inventory into a merchant like in any other RPG. First, there’s a lot of upgrades you can buy to get customers to pay more money for items. Second, you have to do a certain amount of guess-and-check to figure out the ideal price for an item based on customer reactions, being overjoyed to find something way underpriced or scowling and walking away if they find something way overpriced.

There’s nothing wrong with either of these mechanics, but they don’t sustain proper shop gameplay. There are technically different customer types, but they make almost no difference to gameplay. Adventurers aren’t interested in regular drops, only in finished weapons, armor, and potions. Rich customers are more flexible on price, their threshold for getting scowly and refusing to buy is much higher. The problem is, these customers don’t have a separate reputation pool from standard customers, and even put together they’re very rare, so you don’t really have to care about them at all. If an adventurer comes into your shop and can’t find anything for sale, well, no big deal, because eighteen regular customers did that day. If a rich person walks into your shop, they might buy something at a markup that you ordinarily wouldn’t be able to sell, but only by about 25%, which is basically never worth the hassle of keeping some high value items overpriced until a rich customer walks in, especially since every regular customer who considers buying it will cost you reputation if they scowl at it and leave. There’s a tradeoff here, in that losing customers gets you less foot traffic, but getting more customers than you have items to sell is super easy, so you can afford to sacrifice some reputation to marking up some high value items for rich customers…but the markup is small enough that it’s hard to care. An extra 25% on one or two items when your backpack has enough room for 15-20 (depending on how many potions you’re hauling around) means that your daily profits will probably increase by less than 10% if you master this, the only real shop management mechanic that the game has.

The shop half of the game desperately needs more. For example, instead of reputation being invisible, have three different obvious reputation meters (visible on the HUD whenever your shop is open to customers) for warriors, rogues, and mages, each of whom buy different materials for heavy, medium, and light armor, respectively (there are materials in the game that are only used for different weapons, that are only used for potions, and that aren’t used for any crafting at all, but I’m staying focused on armor materials to keep the example simple). The higher your reputation with a customer type, the bigger a tip they leave, and having a high reputation with a specific customer type also draws in more of that customer type. You lose reputation for overpriced items, but also if a customer can’t find anything to buy.

Additionally, rather than always making just one purchase, customers have a certain amount of money they’re looking to spend and will purchase multiple items until they’re above that threshold. This means you can’t split up bundles of items into multiple small parcels to trick customers into being satisfied with a tiny purchase, you have to actually stock items that the specific customer type values.

A more realistic but more complex approach would be that they have a spending limit and a certain total value of items they’re looking to buy, and they will spend as little money as possible to hit their value target, but will give up and not buy anything if they can’t hit their value target without going over their spending limit. I don’t know if there’s a good way to make all that legible to the player, though, and if the system is opaque it won’t be fun to interact with.

However you model specific customer spending habits, you have to give an easy way to check which drops appeal to which customer type while in the dungeon so players can make quick and convenient decisions about which items to drop in favor of others. A little dot, for example: Grey if no customer has ever reacted favorably to this item (which might mean that it is unknown or might mean that nobody likes it, usually the former), blue if a mage has reacted favorably, green for a rogue, and red for a warrior. The dot can also be multi-color if multiple customer types have reacted favorably to it (for example, probably everyone loves potion ingredients and certain rare and high-value treasure items). A three-color dot is probably pushing it on how easy it is to make out the colors, but since there are three colors total (plus grey, but grey is mutually exclusive to a multi-color dot) it should be easy to interpret that if the dot has so many colors that it’s starting to become a mess, that means everyone likes this item and you don’t have to squint and double-check what specific colors are there.

And then you make the armor-types favored by those customers cheaper the higher their reputation becomes, as your store attracts more of that type of adventurer to town and bulk production of relevant equipment brings the price down. So if you’re a light-armor type yourself, you want lots of mages in town, but you don’t want to neglect warrior and rogue types so much that you can’t sell your warrior/rogue materials at all.

And you’d also want to have to prioritize what you’re doing when the shop is open. As it is, it’s usually very easy to attend to every customer who’s on the fence about an item (this pushes them into purchasing it), check out all the items for your customers, and tackle any thieves who swipe something. Occasionally a thief will swipe something while you’re on the other side of the shop and you just won’t be fast enough to catch up, but there’s never any need to choose whether to attend to one customer or another because there’s always plenty of time to do both. It feels less like gameplay and more like an idle game giving you mostly-pointless tasks to keep you engaged while your gold ticks upward for the day. In a better version of the game, though, attending customers would play more into reputation and would also convince them to give a tip or at least to increase their spending limit and thus buy more items. Instead of being something that comes up now and again, customers would require attendance almost constantly and there’s no way you’d be able to get them all, so you need to decide who’s most important.

I’d want an actual prototype in front of me to play around with before I commited to this next part, but you might also want expenses. The shop half of the game is probably best served by drawing on tycoon games, and in a tycoon game the looming threat is that expenses will outstrip income. Shop employees need income and also should exist at all earlier in the game and be more important, decorations should likewise feature more prominently and require maintenance as should the shop itself. It’s possible you want to cut the shop expenses because in this game you’re saving up for weapon/armor upgrades instead, but I don’t know if the shop management end can work without that.

These are unplaytested idea off the top of my head, but the point here is that you can definitely give the shop half of gameplay a lot more meat, and that it definitely needs more meat, because it’s the game’s main selling point.

My House Was On Fire

Even having switched to one post weekly, my queue has run empty so I need to write something up. Problem is, I’ve been extremely busy in January trying to pivot away from 5e as fast as possible, so I haven’t played that many video games. Turns out I needn’t have bothered, everything just kinda worked out, but I did bother so now my blogging queue is empty.

I’m less than halfway through Far Cry 3, I’ve played a little bit of Moonlighter but not quite gotten past the first dungeon of five, and I still haven’t quite wrapped up the last side quest I want to bag in Hades before calling it finished. And when I have been playing video games, it’s usually been in a state of absolute exhaustion, a point where I realize I can’t do any more work so the smart thing to do is recover so that I can work at a reasonable pace later – and that’s not a great place to be in when trying to figure out if Moonlighter is any good. I’m kind of generous on games in the first place, but in that state of mind any game will hold my attention for 1-2 hours and then immediately lose it as I feel able to get back to writing and panicky about reaching my deadline.

So these blog updates might end up being a 2022 thing? I dunno, we’ll see how things go.