Just Let Me Buy Your Fucking Video Game

Every now and again I end up playing a bunch of mobile games, usually because I’m traveling for a couple of days and have to rely on my phone for entertainment for hours at a time, and then I keep playing whatever games actually ended up engaging me for a couple weeks more. There’s a lot of mobile games that remind me in a good way of the days I spent on Kongregate back around 2006-2010 or so, playing through games that had strong basic gameplay and which were an absolute blast for the one to three hours they lasted.

Of course, mobile games aren’t made for the sheer joy of creation the way old flash games were. They’re made for profit. Fair enough, I’m not a broke high school student anymore, I can jolly well pay three dollars for a game that I like. If I find the thirty second ad between each level to be aggravating, that’s a good litmus test: Do I want to pay three dollars to have this game without ads, or do I want to uninstall it and look for something else?

But here’s the absolutely bizarre thing: Most games won’t even give me the option. Johnny Trigger is a game where the eponymous gunman sprints through a level and you have to tap to fire at the right time to shoot enemies on the way, otherwise they’ll shoot you. It’s fun, and I wouldn’t mind paying two or three bucks for an experience without ads, but there’s no option for one. Golf Hit reminds me of Learn To Fly, in that it’s one of those games where you launch a thing a certain distance, get money based on the distance, and use that to upgrade the thing and the launcher in order to send it further. Its pace slows down abysmally once you get about halfway through its unlockable costumes, but I only figured that out because its ads stopped loading about twenty minutes into my tooling around with it, and I then spent something like three or four hours playing the game until it reached the boring part where progress dropped off. And there’s no option to buy your way into faster progress with microtransactions, let alone an option to just buy the non-ad version of the game.

I could get behind the spammed-with-ads-version-as-free-demo model, but the option to buy off the ads is bizarrely absent from a lot of these games.

Spy Party And Survive The Hunt

A tale of two similar games, the first an actual real game you can go buy on Steam, and the second a player-made mode in GTA V with no actual mechanical support at all, just a set of rules that everyone agrees to abide by for the sake of the game. Which means someone could just break the rules at any time, in the same way that someone could just keep running ’round the bases after they’ve already been tagged out in a baseball game, but then you haven’t won the game, you’ve just ended it by refusing to follow its rules and thus voiding its result. Presumably the other team wins by forfeit.

Anyway, game #1 is Spy Party. One player is the spy, and must accomplish a series of small missions while attempting to blend in with an AI crowd. The places where the AI tends to stand are highlighted on the floor, so the spy player can walk directly from one to another without arousing suspicion. The problem is, the missions themselves involve gestures that the AI never make. Planting a bug on the ambassador requires a certain gesture made when next to the ambassador, swapping a real statue for a fake will cause the statue to spontaneously change shape in your hands, dropping a secret code word for the double agent requires you to be in the same conversation hub as the double agent and gives an audio cue.

All of this matters because the other player is the sniper. They have only one bullet with which to shoot the spy. If they’re keen-eyed and the spy is sloppy, they might see a dead giveaway, like spotting the spy planting a bug on the ambassador. Otherwise, they might be able to narrow down the suspects. You don’t know exactly who the double agent is, but when you hear the audio cue, you know for sure that the spy was in conversation with someone, so that rules out anyone who wasn’t in conversation at all. If you didn’t see the statues get swapped but you notice one of them has changed shape, you might become more suspicious of anyone who was nearby the statue.

The spy wins if they complete all their missions. The sniper wins if they shoot the spy, or if time runs out.

Continue reading “Spy Party And Survive The Hunt”

November Humble Monthly

December’s Humble Monthly is the last one, as they’re switching over to the Humble Choice. In the Humble Choice, there’s a dozen-ish games, but instead of getting all of them, you choose nine, or ten if you’re on the Classic plan as a holdover from the Humble Monthly. So, it’s basically the Humble Monthly except you pick three (or two) games to not get. I am slightly nervous about this, mainly because I have no idea what the benefit of switching over is and business decisions that make no sense to me always make me suspicious.

The November Humble Monthly was really good for me, but mainly out of sheer dumb luck. I just so happened to have not bought any of the games in it despite very much wanting several of them. This is pretty atypical. I’ve mentioned earlier that the Humble Monthly is mainly a good way to find hidden gems, a big stack of games you wouldn’t buy separately but one or two of which might end up being your new favorites. November bundle, though, is full of stuff where you probably already know whether or not you want it, and if you really want it, you probably already do. The Crash Bandicoot and Spyro rereleases have been out in one form or another for decades, so the only people who don’t know whether or not they want these games are, like, high school students who weren’t playing video games until the PS2 era when Crash and Spyro were old news. Even then, if they’re subscribed to the Humble Montly then they’re probably plugged into the gamer sub-culture which is full of people who did play Crash and Spyro, and that came up when the trilogies were remastered and rereleased.

There’s also Call of Duty WWII, taking the franchise to exciting new time periods we’ve never visited before, but you know whether or not you want a Call of Duty game, and Shenmue I and II, the first two installments of a trilogy originally designed for the Sega Dreamcast and which is just now getting its third installment. The problem is that Shenmue I and II were only ever good because video games were still in a transitional period between the NES/Super Nintendo era when no one had any idea what they were doing and the people who made good video games were the ones who, largely by chance, had random ideas that were randomly good instead of randomly bad, and the modern era, where what works and what doesn’t is set pretty far in stone and new ideas are the domain of indie games, and even then are made with the benefit of intuitions built up since childhood. What I’m getting at here is that games like Shenmue, which are very clearly made by someone who doesn’t usually play video games, were a bit of anachronism at the time of release and are now completely out of place. The era when game developers didn’t have a long history of playing video games because video games had not existed long enough for anyone to have a long history playing them, that time is over.

11-11 is a game about a Canadian photographer in 1916, during WW1. It’s got a mechanic for taking photos and an art style where everything appears to have been painted. And also I can only use the S and D keys for movement for some reason. This means the game is playable only by rotating the camera around so that I’m facing the direction I want to go and then pressing the S key. I didn’t get very far. Hopefully I can get this glitch resolved, because the game had some fantastic atmosphere for the five minutes I spent trying to troubleshoot the bug.

Synthetik: Legion Rising is a Roguelike twin-stick shooter where you are a robot and must defeat other robots in order to destroy something called the Heart of Armageddon. I’m actually not sure you’re a robot. You definitely unlock different guns as you go and what kind of run you’ll have is going to vary a lot based on what kind of guns you get. On the one hand, I had a lot of fun for the first two runs, but on the other hand, I found myself not wanting to come back for more immediately. I’m sure I’ll play it at least occasionally in the future, and it’s definitely a good length for a cooldown game between bits of work, since a single run lasts all of ten or fifteen minutes, which means I can squeeze in two or three between wrapping up working on one thing and starting work on another.

Evergarden is a puzzle game in the same basic vein as triple town or 2048, where you combine small things into big things in a limited board space in an effort to make the biggest thing possible. The idea here is that you’re maintaining a garden, and you have flowers with between one and six leaves, with six leaf plants combining into stone pedestals which cannot be combined, and instead just permanently take up that space on the board. The way that new plants are added to the board is that, rather than combining, a plant of any size can spit a seed into an adjacent hex, which you can then grow into a new one-leaf plant by ending the turn. You have a limited number of turns to try and create as many pedestals as possible. It’s also a hex board instead of a square one, opening up more angles for combination. That’s the basic gist of it, but there’s a bunch of other little complications thrown in on specific levels (which I think might be randomly generated? There’s definitely no specific enumerated list of levels, but the starting plants and conditions change each time you boot it up again), and you can unlock new stuff with special triangular talisman thingies that come out of any pedestals you’ve made at the end of the level. If you like this kind of combine-things-into-bigger-things-based-on-adjacency sort of puzzle game, I’d definitely recommend Evergarden. There appears to even be some kind of plot, but so far it’s just very cryptic letters from “Mom” about how the garden works. Mom appears to be kind of an asshole, in that she apologizes for how confusing it must all seem at the beginning, but then it turns out she has more letters that we just haven’t unlocked yet. If you didn’t want the garden to be so confusing, why’d you lock all your letters behind mystic talisman puzzles? You could’ve just put all the letters on our desk at the beginning!

So anyway, that’s the November Humble Monthly. Sometime soon-ish I’ll take a look at the December Humble Monthly, the last one ever, and also the very first Humble Choice, which was released the same month, so hey, double prizes.

Nier: Automata

I really need to get better about setting time aside to just play a bunch of video games or read something that I’m not reviewing for the blog or otherwise do stuff that isn’t some kind of work. I end up so burnt out that I miss a week’s worth of blog posts before finally taking an entire day off to just play Nier: Automata for like ten hours. Just as a hypothetical example.

I am super late on the Nier: Automata thing, despite having been meaning to play it for like an entire year now, but having finished the 2B playthrough and nudged my way slightly into the 9S playthrough, I’m not sure how much I was missing. The game has a great soundtrack and looks amazing, but I was soaking that in way before I first played it, let alone before I sat down to play it properly. The combat looks great, but it’s pretty standard light attack, heavy attack, dodge, counter kind of stuff, and the story is surprisingly flat once the novelty of its big ideas wears off. I hope this is because I have completed one out of three playthroughs, and that there is significantly more story to come, because even though the first playthrough builds up to a final boss and saving the world and everything, it leaves a lot of questions dangling. When combat android 2B first goes down to Earth to meet up with the resistance, the resistance leader acts as though she’s some kind of prophesied chosen one, but it’s never explained why. The vaguely authoritarian moon government has almost explicitly some ulterior motive or dark secret that causes androids to go rogue, and it’s never revealed what that is. There’s an implication that the friendly machine village’s efforts at peace with the Resistance/YoRHa/vaguely authoritarian moon government might meet with trouble, but it’s never really explored. An entire chapter of the first playthrough seems to serve no purpose except to introduce a character A2, who does not appear again.

Even as setup to a greater plot, though, the 2B playthrough is kinda weak. The main villains are factory standard creepy bishonen who don’t seem to have any thematic connection to our main characters at all. They challenge our heroes physically, but it’s not really clear what emotional obstacle they’re supposed to pose or symbolize, nor does 2B seem to have grown at all between the first chapter and the last (of her own playthrough, at least). At the end of the first chapter, 2B’s combat drone companion is telling her to abandon 9S because the combat doctrine of the vaguely authoritarian moon government calls for it (android soldiers like 9S and 2B seem to be very expendable to the vaguely authoritarian moon government), and 2B tells it to shut up and fights to save her comrade. In the final confrontation with the main villain, the exact same conversation happens: The drone recommends abandoning 9S because odds of success are low, and 2B tells it to shut up. If there’s one character arc that gets pursued beginning to end, it’s 2B warming up to 9S, but from the very beginning she was willing to fight to protect his life just out of sheer altruism to her fellow android soldiers, so her actions in the climax don’t really serve as the conclusion to a character arc.

The 9S playthrough has had some cool moments that use the “second playthrough” concept well. Setting up initial options is done diegetically in the first playthrough, with 9S walking 2B through her android options menu, and in the second playthrough I got to watch a recording of myself exploring the options menu, remembering my own thought process as I went through each menu looking for things I should tweak (you can skip the sequence at any time, although I didn’t spend very long in the options, so I didn’t feel the need to skip the repeat viewing), which gave a sort of out-of-body-experience kind of feeling, watching myself play 2B for a bit while now controlling 9S.

Of course, in actual gameplay, 2B is just an AI companion just like 9S was before, so it was short-lived, and there were some missed opportunities for the second playthrough elsewhere. Upon first arrival at the hub area as 2B, I was lost. Returning to it now as 9S, I know my way around so well I don’t even need the mini-map. Would’ve been cool if, during the first playthrough, 9S had led 2B to the Resistance camp (the first location you need to reach to get the plot rolling), only taking on his standard AI companion behavior of following 2B around everywhere after reaching the camp. Then, in the second playthrough, the player-controlled 9S could’ve led the AI companion 2B to the Resistance camp, because the place is familiar to him. Also, 9S loses his memory of the entire first chapter, because 9S and 2B blow themselves up to take down a trio of mega-enemies and there was only enough time to backup one of their memories to the cloud before the detonation. This would’ve been a great excuse to skip that chapter, but instead we play it from 9S’ perspective. It’s one of the most-changed chapters from the first to second playthrough since 9S and 2B are separated for most of it, but nothing really happens in 9S’ part. In the 2B playthrough, tons of worldbuilding and character relations were established, but in 9S’ playthrough, it’s all a rerun. There was a perfect excuse to skip it entirely, but instead we get the exact same conversations with different gameplay. Plus, the conversations revolve around what 2B is seeing, and 9S’ version, where he’s just blasting random robot baddies unconnected to the subject of discussion, is just way less interesting.

I haven’t gotten too deep into it, but I’m worried that’s going to be a theme of the 9S playthrough in general: Watching the exact same plot and character arc unfold, but from a slightly less interesting vantage point. 2B and 9S were together for 80% of the first playthrough, and for most of the time they were apart, 9S was incapacitated. What’s there for this new playthrough to reveal? Especially during the first half, when 9S and 2B are constant companions? What can 9S see or hear that 2B didn’t?

October Humble Monthly


The big ticket item for this month’s Humble Monthly, and one I’d been idly meaning to pick up for months, so this worked out great for me. Most of the time, the big ticket for a Humble Monthly is something I either already owned or had absolutely no interest in, which I think is a problem for the big tickets generally. Pretty much by definition, they’re not an undiscovered gem, which means if you want it, you probably already have it. It’s usually something whose price has already come down to something like $30-$40, tops, which is more than a single monthly bundle costs even if you pay month-to-month, but is still cheap enough that if you can afford the Humble Monthly, you can probably afford to buy it.

I was in the perfect sweet spot where I wanted Battletech, but not enough to get around to actually buying it. And then it turns out my machine isn’t quite up to actually running the game. I have no idea why, but it takes something like 2-3 minutes to load each mission, which slows the pace down to the point of being unbearable. I only wound up playing through the opening mission, and the gameplay seems solid, although I’m not sold on the story. The opening of the story has you and your mentor figure escorting a space princess to her space coronation in your space robots, then her evil uncle attempts to usurp the throne, the three of you all try to flee, and you’re the only one who survives. You’re picked up by some mercenaries and with nothing else to do, you join them. You’re now a merc with a grudge against the reigning authority.

Great so far, but then there’s a three year time skip. Now, if that opening sequence hadn’t represented some 10-ish minutes of loading screens between loading chargen, loading the opening cut scene, loading the first mission, loading the second cut scene, and loading the second mission, I probably wouldn’t care so much that this early mission turned out to be pretty much completely unrelated to the start of the actual plot, and what later relevance it will inevitably have could’ve been filled in when it was important. It’s not like I spent any significant amount of time getting to know my giant robot mentor and the space princess he liked so much. It’s kind of like Dishonored, they’re getting betrayed within five minutes of my first conversation with them and I don’t know them well enough to care that much. Like, I’m trying to meet the game halfway and do some roleplaying in this roleplaying game, I was ready to get invested in the situation of the immediate aftermath of that battle, scampering with the friendly mercs to the far end of the galaxy to get my mech fixed, pay off the debts incurred for that, and then see about making enough money to somehow get revenge on the evil usurper uncle with, I dunno, a mercenary army or something. Opportunities for revenge tend to present themselves to successful mercenaries with a dark past.

But with the three year time skip, I am apparently actually supposed to be several years removed from those events, which yanks me right out of the headspace of caring about them at all. The momentum built up by the first scene is suddenly gone. And again, if it hadn’t been a 2-3 minute long loading screen to load the second cut scene, followed by a very brief dialogue with the mercs, followed quickly by another 2-3 minute long loading screen for the second mission, the strength of the turn-based mech fighting gameplay probably would’ve been enough to carry me through another mission or two, and then maybe the new situation would’ve built up some momentum the way the old one had. I don’t think the problem here is that Battletech is incredibly poorly optimized, because my computer has trouble loading things all the time. I didn’t have the money to spring for an SSD, and this is a machine that desperately wants to be running on an SSD. I should’ve gotten a slightly lower end model that’s actually designed to work with the hardware it’s got. Lessons learned, and in the meantime I can’t throw a thousand dollars at a new laptop just to keep up with all the latest releases. So that’s what ruined Battletech for me. Poor hardware choices.

Continue reading “October Humble Monthly”

Majesty 1 vs. Majesty 2

Majesty: The Fantasy Kingdom Sim is one of my favorite video games. Years after the release of its northern expansion, it had a sequel, Majesty 2, produced by a different studio. The fandom did not like it very much. They claimed it had lost all the charm of the original. The specific complaints were both dumb and over-exaggerated (“they cut gnomes!” So what? They may have been a fun idea, but mechanically they were a trap option useful only in bizarre edge cases), but the general criticism is valid: Majesty 2 has shifted focus considerably from the original, and is more about irritating micromanagement of your heroes than it is about managing your economy.

In the original Majesty, you could build an unlimited number of marketplaces and trading posts, with the only restriction being that their costs rose sharply for each additional one constructed. In many quests, the ultimate goal is to survive long enough to get three marketplaces to level 3, at which point you are bringing in such a ludicrous amount of gold that your economy can power through virtually any opposition.

In Majesty 2, you are limited to a single marketplace and can only build trading posts on pre-designated spots. There’s a hard limit on how powerful your economy can grow, and it’s much more important to have huge hero hordes early on, so rather than balancing early defense and the foundations of an economy as in Majesty 1, in Majesty 2 you really just need to make sure you set aside enough gold for your marketplace from your starting pile while all the rest goes towards hero guilds. Once you’ve got your marketplace up and running, that income is mostly going to be recycled into more hero guilds and resurrecting dead heroes from graveyards.

Economy is less important, but unit management takes up the extra slack (once you get out of the interminable tutorial phase where you can build so few buildings that the game is largely spent staring at a screen waiting for your heroes to get on with it – the original Majesty had this same problem in its early levels). In the original Majesty, a single copy of each guild was more than sufficient to tame the wilderness, but in Majesty 2 even simple quests will demand 2 or 3 warriors’ guilds. Not only do you need to build more guilds, you also need to use the attack, explore, and welcome new additions of defend and fear flags to direct hero movement considerably more. Rangers will make some limited explorations of their own initiative, but explore flags are necessary to get them to locate dungeons for your warriors to raid. The game is less about setting up a town, bringing in some heroes, and letting them do their thing, with quest rewards being used only sporadically to prioritize their attention, and more about using reward flags to direct your heroes towards each and every goal you need accomplished like a less responsive version of StarCraft. The hands-off hero control is Majesty’s whole thing, that’s what makes you feel like you’re running the town in a fantasy RPG rather than playing some WarCraft knock-off fantasy RTS.

The game also leans a bit too heavily on the satire. The heroes, royal adviser, and other good guys come across less like genuine heroes who have some funny human foibles and more like selfish (albeit charming) cowards who pretend at heroism. It’s a not-bad imitation of the original game’s style, but it leans too heavily on the things that made Majesty stand out from the stock medieval fantasy setting, which led to it drowning out some of the important qualities of the stock medieval fantasy setting that the satirical elements relied on to function. Majesty 1 was charming because it was simultaneously very aware that they were the umpteenth video game to use this setting but nevertheless playing it mostly straight. Majesty 2 treats its setting a bit too much like a joke, though thankfully not to an extreme. It never gets hard to take the setting seriously at all, but it does frequently feel like your accomplishments are being trivialized a bit when the adviser implies that the heroic deeds you’re accomplishing are so much propaganda papered over a naked power grab.

Majesty 2 might not compare favorably to its predecessor, but it is ultimately still a fun game. Once I’ve finished playing all the content in Majesty 1, I can either play plot-free random maps forever, replay the exact same content over and over again, or I can play Majesty 2, and of those options, playing Majesty 2 is easily the most appealing.

Humble Monthly August

Surviving Mars is a city-builder sort of game where you plop down buildings to create an economic engine to plop down more buildings. There is also some kind of mystery that you can solve, with several to choose from at the start, though being mysteries, exactly what’s up with them wasn’t clear. I didn’t get far enough to find out, because I was sick to Hell of wrestling with Surviving Mars’ opaque resource management. The only interesting decision involved in drones needing to be within range of a coordination unit is that it puts a population cap on the amount of drones you can have in a certain area. So, fine, certain areas have a certain amount of drone control as defined by the drone command radii of certain buildings or vehicles, and if you want more drones in an area, you need more of those. Perfectly reasonable city building gameplay. Except, that’s not how it works, because there is no way to make drones seamlessly transition from one building/vehicle’s control to another. You have to manually reassign them from one to the other every time you want them to move from the range of one to the range of another. This means the optimal way to play the game is with tons of micromanagement busywork as you constantly transfer drones from one mothership to another. There’s a good game hiding underneath Surviving Mars’ terrible micromanagement, but not so good that I’m willing to unearth it.

You probably already know whether or not you want Kingdom Come: Deliverance. It’s an RPG set in medieval Bohemia about politics and war in the Holy Roman Empire. There was an internet controversy about it that was dumb even by internet controversy standards.

Swords and Sorcery 2: Shawarmageddon is a 2D RTS game descended from those Flash RTS games from 2008 where amateur devs tried to wring RTS gameplay out of limited devs as a weekend project. Units you produce march directly from left to right while enemies march directly from right to left. You can cast spells when you have enough mana. I don’t want to give the impression that this genre as a whole is shallow, because it doesn’t have to be, and indeed, this specific game might even be fun once it finally gets off its ass to have some real gameplay. After 15 minutes of particularly hand-holdy tutorial and cringey plot that’s trying way too hard to be zany, though, I gave up. This is a very straightforward genre first created by devs who didn’t know how to make a top-down interface work. The tutorial should not last longer than thirty seconds. Especially not when the plot keeps making callbacks to the original game. If your presumption is that most of your audience for game 2 played game 1, why are you dragging things out with tutorial stages? An early bug prevented me from completing the third tutorial stage (you can send workers to collect chests and if they get stabbed to death, the chest drops and you must send another worker – but a necessary chest dropped behind another interactable doodad and was impossible to target for collection, all attempts to select it just selected the doodad instead), and I decided the game didn’t deserve more than the 15 minutes it got.

Continue reading “Humble Monthly August”

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”

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.