Katana Zero

Katana Zero is an indie game where you play an assassin clearing out entire buildings full of mysterious shady underworld types for the sake of an employer whose motives you don’t fully understand whilst in a drug-fueled haze that distorts your ability to properly perceive what’s going on. The only differences between it and Hotline Miami are that it’s a side-view instead of top-down and that the drug-fueled haze is explicit and the driving force of the plot rather than it just kind of being implied that some guy killing a building full of people in 1980s Miami is probably on cocaine.

Katana Zero even has similar gameplay, in that you’re a one-hit-point wonder taking on multiple enemies by constantly replaying the same level until you’ve built up enough understanding of the building layout and enemy behavior to know how to get through the level, plus the muscle memory to pull it off with no mistakes. You’re an anime samurai instead of an 80s anti-hero, but that’s probably the biggest difference.

Katana Zero looks really nice, and it invests a lot of time in its story. The cut scenes conveying the story look good, but they irritate me on two counts:

Firstly, it ends itself on a cliffhanger. This game came out in 2019 and there’s still no sign of a continuation. A three year delay between installments in a game series isn’t unheard of, but it’s starting to look pretty grim. The story does at least wrap up the big mystery of your amnesiac protagonist’s identity by the end, but the final boss (not counting the secret boss) is clearly a sidekick to another, more important villain, and it’s still not really clear what exactly you were doing in the present or who exactly your employer or enemies are. You vaguely understand that your employer is trying to cover up the government-created super drugs you’re high on, and one of the villains is very definitely working in service of their own personal vendetta, so that doesn’t need any more explanation. It’s not clear if you’re working directly for the government, though. Wouldn’t they have better alternatives than an amnesiac murder-cocaine junkie for doing their dirty work? They’re definitely not super satisfied with your erratic performance and behavior.

Secondly, towards the end it really leans into the “do you enjoy killing people?” throwaway line that totally overshadowed everything else in Hotline Miami only because, as far as I can tell, it happened to come out near Spec Ops: The Line and the conversation surrounding the two games blurred together. You get dialogue options which, for the most part, change nothing except the immediate reaction of other characters, which is fine. It gives you a chance to define some details of the protagonist even if that protagonist’s motivation and goals are chosen for you. But then, faced with perhaps the biggest opportunity to do this sort of thing yet when another character asks you if you like killing, the game gives you a fakeout choice. If you pick a dialogue choice other than the “yes I like killing” one there’s a little glitch-y animation and the game selects the “I like killing” option anyway.

It comes off like a bunch of indie game tropes being smashed together with no understanding of their purpose. The game’s UI changing its behavior to reflect the mental state of the protagonist is, at this point, a fairly common indie game trick, but what mental state is being reflected here? Apparently the protagonist is incapable of saying they don’t like to kill people? This doesn’t happen anywhere else in the game, so there’s no point of comparison that might help us figure out what this moment is supposed to say about the protagonist. Like, even if they do really like killing people (not that this character trait ever informs the story), it’s still totally unexplained why the protagonist is apparently incapable of even claiming they don’t enjoy murder. Why they tried to say one thing but said something else instead. And since the protagonist has motivations to pursue the plot independent of how much they enjoy the act of killing mooks itself, there’s no reason why the game couldn’t let you characterize the protagonist a bit here by deciding whether they find combat to be a thrill, an ugly necessity, or a chore they’re by now numb to.

The climax of the story involves the protagonist being assigned to kill everyone in a building and then, after mowing through all the combatants, not killing a couple of unarmed people deep in a bunker (presumably related to the guy who owns the place), and there’s another UI bit wherein all your dialogue options are to kill the bystanders, but then you don’t anyway. Is the implication supposed to be that something is trying to force him to kill, and also I guess to claim he loves killing people? This ties into the cliffhanger thing above, where it’s hard to know whether these unanswered questions are intentional loose ends or just poor design, but without knowing when (if ever) the DLC that’s supposed to wrap up the story will be released, it’s poor design for the game as it is now.

Journey

Journey came out in 2012, when financially I was firmly in the “can I afford a third tomato this week” phase of life. I bought used PS2 games for $5 or less, played on a console my parents had bought when I was in middle school. My high school laptop, a gasping Toshiba that I carefully squeezed every last bit of use out of, was too far on its last legs for me to even be thinking about getting new games on it. Instead I played emulated NES games and 2007 MMOs that had gone free-to-play with the graphics turned all the way down. Possibly this machine still could’ve handled Journey, but I wasn’t even looking at new releases, so I missed it. The asking price of fifteen whole dollars was a bit rich for my blood, anyway.

My finances have become considerably less dire since then, and at some point I picked up Journey, probably from a Humble Bundle because it only lasts 90 minutes and yet it took me until today (May 29th, 2022) to actually play it, which suggests I probably got it packaged with a bunch of other stuff and didn’t immediately play it for a full session. I know I at least booted it up and got as far as retrieving the scarf, but I didn’t get more than 5-10 minutes in with that first session before leaving it alone for however many years.

Masterfully designed indie darling that it is, someone even casually interested in game design was inevitably going to get the basic gist of Journey after waiting ten years to play it, so I knew that it was primarily a two-player game. You’d get matched with a random companion fairly early on as long as you’re connected to wifi. I’ve played so many MMOs, though, that the idea of a game ten years past release still having a sufficiently active population that you’ll actually bump into them outside of a single trade hub, the final bastion of player interactivity, seemed intuitively impossible to me. When I play a “multiplayer” game, unless I’ve specifically arranged to get some friends to play it with me, I’ll be walking through the remains of a dead community, full of wide, empty spaces between NPCs intended to hold crowds of players who’ve long since moved on. Sometimes it’s the boarded up shell of a ghost town that once bustled with dozens of inhabitants active at once. Sometimes it’s the ruins of an empire millions strong. What it isn’t, ever, is alive.

Journey, of course, isn’t an MMO. It’s got about ninety minutes of content and so long as any other player anywhere in the world is playing the same stage as you while connected to the internet, you will be matched with that player.

So, when I reached the ruined bridge and started figuring out how to rebuild it, I logically should’ve known immediately what I was looking at when I saw another figure that looked identical to me. They weren’t moving, so my first thought was “is this some kind of mirage?” And I started running towards them to see what would happen when I got close. They started running towards me, with what was unmistakably player-directed movement – purposeful but rigid, constrained by the inputs of a controller, yet not totally precise, making minor course corrections along the way rather than pointing themselves exactly at where they want to go like a computer. Somehow the idea that a ten-year-old game would still have other players seemed so impossible that I still didn’t get it. “Is this some kind of recording of me, playing back my own entrance to this valley?” I thought, which seemed weird because you’d think such a mechanic would’ve come up in discussions of the game, even if it only affected a small section near the start.

It wasn’t until they got close and I saw how much longer their scarf was that it finally hit me. Of course. Another player. The two of us stood next to one another, and exchanged a few notes of song. The only thing you can really use to communicate in Journey, besides the game’s movement mechanics, is the song produced by a single button, so it’s kind of like honking your car horn except it’s much more melodious. Still, you can’t even sing a specific tune, let alone add lyrics, so it’s pretty limited. So I’m sure my companion had no idea what exactly I was trying to sing at them.

“I thought for sure I was the only one left.”

The Eras of Star Wars

I’ve read a lot of Wookieepedia articles. I haven’t directly experienced a whole lot of Star Wars novels or comics, because there are enough of them that I’d never be able to make a complete survey of the field anyway, and as with most massive expanded universes, the general consensus is that most of it isn’t very good.

But I do feel like you can break Star Wars down into a few important eras (real world eras, that is, in-universe eras are also a thing but are not what this post is about), and that consuming the highlights of each era will give you a pretty good look at what Star Wars has been. These should be required reading/viewing/playing for creators helming major projects in the franchise. Even though most audiences have only consumed a fraction of these, a creator who balks at consuming a few dozen hours’ worth of content is showing the kind of contempt for other creators working in the same franchise that indicates they’re a bad fit for the job. It’s not so much that the information transmitted is vital as the willingness to honor the legacy of those who came before. If all copies of the Thrawn Trilogy suddenly evaporated into powder, you could probably get by just fine without them, but if someone is unwilling to read three books before creating a new installment in the same shared universe, that speaks poorly to their willingness to play nice with other creators in such a way as to create a sustainable shared universe.

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Fantastical Combined Arms

I really like it when a story has fantastical combined arms. For the uninitiated, “combined arms” refers to using different weapon systems operated by different soldiers together to cover for each other’s weaknesses and maximize effectiveness. The one that’s been going around the news lately is using infantry and armor (which mostly means tanks) together so that enemy infantry don’t blow up all your tanks with javelin ambushes. Primitive militaries (even when their gear is high-tech, like modern armies with pure armor units with no infantry attached) tend to sort units by weapon type, because that’s simpler and more straightforward for the commander, who is in charge, but advanced militaries (even when their gear is low-tech, like iron age armies with infantry and artillery (i.e. archers and/or slingers) mixed together in a single unit) mix different troop types together, training them to support one another for more tactical effectiveness.

Having fantastical combined arms not only improves verisimilitude, since combined arms is effective across so many technological and geographic landscapes in the real world that it’s hard to imagine a fantasy setting where that wouldn’t also apply, they also make for more interesting gameplay and more varied fight scenes.

As recent posts suggest, I’ve been playing through the Force Awakens recently, and while that game is mostly pretty meh, its unit variety is occasionally really good. They have a decent variety of different stormtroopers and stuff, which is cool but not a big enough deal to justify an entire blog post, but what really caught my attention was the penultimate battle on the first visit to Felucia (right before Shaak Ti). The Felucians have tamed rancors, a bunch of melee warrior mooks, a powerful chieftain in front, and a shaman who provides buffs in back, and they all cover for each other really well.

The rancors are the headliners, of course, with powerful melee and ranged attacks (they can hurl boulders at you) that will deal most of the damage to Starkiller. They’re vulnerable to being kited with Force lightning, though. You can blast them with lightning, during which time they’re stunned and can’t retaliate, and then run away while your force recharges to blast them again. Their hurled boulders aren’t hard to dodge if you’re focused on a rancor alone.

This is where the warriors and especially chieftain come in. The warriors can swarm you while you’re blasting the rancor with lightning, hitting you while your hands are occupied and you can’t defend yourself, and the chieftain has a much faster ranged attack that can interrupt both your Force lightning and your melee combos. The chieftain and warriors can both be defeated by giving them a quick blast with lightning, and then moving in for a full damage lightsaber combo before they recover from the shock, but the Force shaman can give the warriors a shield making them immune to lightsaber attacks. Due to their sheer numbers, blasting them all down with lightning is impractical.

The shaman is extremely vulnerable to any sort of attack, but doesn’t have to be anywhere near the frontlines to boost their allies, so in this fight the shaman hangs back behind the rancors with a couple of warriors around as a last line of defense.

It’s only the mid-point of the game, so the battle still isn’t especially difficult. The extremely agile Starkiller doesn’t have a whole lot of difficulty getting past the rancors without killing them, and taking out the fragile shaman at the back. With the shaman dead, you can thin out the warriors with quick blasts of lightning for stun followed by a combo for damage, dispatching a warrior or two before any of the rancors can catch up and dish out serious damage, and you can use the Force repulse power (which sends out a Force push in all directions, knocking away everyone nearby) if you get surrounded. Once the rancors’ warrior support is too thinned out to interrupt the lightning, you can kite them to wear them down. There’s three of them and they’re too big to be affected by Force repulse (despite the fact that a couple of weeks later at the most, Starkiller literally pulls a star destroyer out of the sky, so you’d think he’d have the whole “size matters not” thing down hard enough to toss a rancor around like a ragdoll, but you’d be wrong), so you have to be careful not to get surrounded, but Starkiller’s agility saves him again, easily able to outmaneuver the lumbering monsters to keep all three on one side.

Then you have to finish them off with a quick time event, which, god, can’t the finishing animation just play automatically? The Force Unleashed usually uses them infrequently enough that they’d be perfectly good as a quick spectacle as a reward for defeating a mini-boss (although this encounter specifically is a bad example, since there’s three rancors at once – probably best to let the first two just die and only use the finishing animation on the last one), but because there’s a quick time event slapped on, I’m distracted from the animation and the sequence feels annoying and anti-climactic instead of rewarding. Oh, well. Nothing’s perfect.

I use a video game example here because that’s what prompted the post, but you can see how this could apply to prose or animation or whatever. The enemies don’t just have extended health bars or deal more damage, the way in which Starkiller fights them is different. He might start out trying to blast the rancors with lightning and get swarmed, then try to fight the warriors and find the shaman keeping him at bay and the rancors catching up with him.

After using his Force-empowered agility to leap through the trees past the frontline and catch the shaman, swiftly dispatching them (after a short chase) with his lightsaber, the rancors would catch up, he’d try to blast them with lightning again, and get swarmed by the warriors and chieftain. After using Force repulse to clear away most of the warriors, he’d have a melee fight with the chieftain while dodging stray warriors and rancor swipes, and then, once the chieftain is down, unleash the full power of his Force lightning to fry the rancors.

You might cut two of the rancors if they feel redundant, and you definitely want the ending to be a single sustained burst of Force lightning, long enough that the audience gets how the warrior swarm was able to interrupt it, but not dragging on the way the game’s kiting strategy would, and you’d also want to rely on Force lightning a lot less for fighting the warriors and chieftain so that it can be reserved as the rancor-killing finisher move, but the basic pace of the fight is the same.

The Force Unleashed Looks Better On PS2

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is one of those transitional games that was released on two different consoles. One version was released on the PS3 and XBox 360, while the other was released on the PS2 and the Wii. I played the PS2 version growing up, because it took me a long time to get a PS3. The version sold on Steam as part of the May the Fourth sale is the PS3 version, though. The PS2 version exists only on console. I figured that was fine, this would be an upgrade, probably the same basic concept even if the levels were different, and the PS3 version would look much nicer.

Turns out the PS2 version looks better.

Now, the PS3 version plainly has massively more graphical horsepower behind it. Looking at a randomly selected screenshot, the PS3 version looks way better. But the PS2 has better art direction. For starters, the PS2 has Starkiller wield his lightsaber like a regular person, while the PS3 version has him reverse-wielding like a dork. The facial animations on the PS3 version are certainly more detailed, but the animators either weren’t used to the tech, didn’t have enough time, or just weren’t good, because the facial animations are all really bad and uncanny any time there’s a closeup on a human (some aliens’ animations do alright, probably because their faces are sufficiently non-human that my human brain doesn’t notice anything weird). The PS2 facial animations are all blocky and imprecise, as PS2 facial animations are, but they’re at least good at being the level of graphics they’re at, rather than bad at being something better.

The thing that really disappointed me, however, was the stormtrooper designs. In the PS2 version, the opening level playing as Darth Vader on Kashyyyk has troopers that still have blue stripe-y designs like they had at the end of the Clone Wars. In the levels in the Jedi Temple (which don’t exist in the PS3 version, but which take place in the early part of the plot where you’re still Darth Vader’s apprentice), the stormtroopers have the black-and-white color scheme, but their design is different, with the eyes connected together into a single visor and less armor on the legs (they’re not scout troopers, the visor isn’t as big and their upper body is more heavily armored, but they look like a distinct stormtrooper variant the way scout troopers and snowtroopers do). It’s only at the end, during the ambush on Corellia when Darth Vader betrays you, and then on the Death Star as you save the fledgling Rebel Alliance, that the iconic stormtrooper armor is used, thematically linking up the end of Force Unleashed with the beginning of the original trilogy.

In the PS3 version, they’re already using regular stormtroopers even on Kashyyyk, ten (ish) years before A New Hope. It was a real disappointment. The evolution of the stormtroopers was one of my favorite details of the Force Unleashed, and turns out it’s not even in the PC version.

It’s not directly related to art design or graphics, but the PS2 version also has you find Jedi Master Rahm Kota on the surface of Nar Shaddaa, rather than in Cloud City on Bespin where you find him in the PS3 version. It is kinda weird that Rahm Kota has apparently gone into hiding on the surface of the planet orbited by the TIE fighter factory he just blew up, but it would’ve given us a higher graphics look at a planet that had previously only been seen in previous gen games like KotOR II (or previous-previous gen games like Dark Forces). Besides, while it’s hardly impossible for the Empire to have sent one elite platoon to Cloud City to kill a Jedi several years before Empire Strikes Back and yet Han and Lando still treat it like neutral territory, it still grates a bit narratively for the Empire to show up on Bespin prior to ESB. The story beat that actually happens on Nar Shaddaa/Bespin is basically identical regardless of which one you use, you just find a drunk old Jedi in a cantina and then escape an Imperial strike team sent to kill him, or maybe you, it’s not clear. Either way, Nar Shaddaa has always been a place where crime lords do the Empire’s dirty work (it’s still kinda weird that there’s a regular old TIE factory in orbit, but Nar Shaddaa is where the Jabba the Hutt was helping the Empire run its Dark Trooper project clear back in Dark Forces when it was first introduced, so clearly this is a place where Imperial presence is not unusual).

On the bright side, the PS3 version’s costumes get unlocked at the start of the planet they make sense, rather than at the end. In the PS2 version, the heavy training outfit is unlocked at the end of Raxus Prime, the toxic and jagged trash world where being all bundled up makes sense, which means if you use it immediately, you’ll be wearing it on the next planet Felucia, the alien jungle where it makes no sense at all. Then at the end of Felucia, you unlock the light training outfit, which means that Starkiller has inexplicably decided to take his shirt off for a visit to the city planet of Nar Shaddaa. It’s at least not the opposite of what makes sense, like with the heavy training outfit on Felucia, so if Starkiller were generally a “shirts are for losers” kind of guy that wouldn’t look out of place on Nar Shaddaa. In the PS3 version, though, you get the heavy training outfit at the start of Raxus Prime and even have it automatically equipped at the start, and the light training outfit for Felucia, where it’s hot and humid and it makes sense that Starkiller would want to be wearing less than normal.

That reverse-wielded lightsaber, though. Can I get a costume that removes that?

EDIT: Also, as an important addendum, the second-to-last level is totally unplayable for me because of how often it crashes, so, uh, be advised that this game can’t necessarily be played on anything more recent than Windows 7.

Don’t Force Me To Be Shocked

During Knights of the Old Republic, when you’re on the Sith ship Leviathan, Darth Malak confronts you and reveals that you’re Darth Revan. There is no dialogue option to say that you’d already figured this out, just two options which are both essentially identical ways of expressing shock and disbelief. I realize that if you give someone a dialogue option to say “yeah, I know” then a lot of people are going to pick it even if they didn’t actually figure it out, but so what? Let them feel cool pretending they’d worked out that Revan is the only person who appears consistently in every vision, and that both of the other two people who’d appeared in them are accounted for. It’s a singleplayer game, so a player who values honestly roleplaying disbelief will pick that option, and a player who just wants to be the coolest kid in school (or who actually did figure the twist out in advance) can do that.

Particularly from the perspective of a replay, it’d be fun to be able to play as either having figured it out, having figured it out but bluffing Malak into thinking you knew all along, or having actually known all along, with the Jedi brainwashing having completely failed and you’ve just been playing along until you’re in a position to reclaim control of the Sith (or maybe you consider the Sith Empire a failed experiment and want to destroy it, whatever). None of these options require a whole lot of expansion of dialogue trees. You’d need to alter Carth’s dialogue in the immediate aftermath, but as long as you don’t allow the player to openly admit to planning on resuming control of the Sith Empire (but you can still openly admit to wanting revenge on Darth Malak) Carth can plausibly remain in the party. And the only reason you even need Carth to remain in the party is so that the conversation on the Rakata Prime beach goes the same way, but I’m not sure that’s even important (I’d have to look at the script and see if anything he says can’t be set up just as well without him).

If you’re wondering when the blog is going to run out of KotOR posts, I would’ve moved on to Batman by now, but my plan to alternate between the Lego version and a more serious version of the same universe was foiled because it turns out the PC version of Arkham Asylum has some kind of memory leak issue that didn’t affect the last computer I played on but is affecting this one, and doesn’t seem to be solvable, so instead of Batman it’s just Star Wars forever now. I am trying to figure out if I can get a joystick to play X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, though, because it turns out some of those games don’t even have a mouse and keyboard option. I know I used to have a joystick fifteen years ago but I don’t think I brought it with me when I moved out, and I’m nervous that if I buy a cheap $20 one it’ll be too cheap to be usable. But also no way can I afford a $100 joystick for one game series when the Traveler’s Guide series is off to such an uncertain start. We’ll see.

The Three Pillars of Star Wars

Knights of the Old Republic does a good job of moving through the three pillars of Star Wars, where most Star Wars games and other spin-offs tend to get stuck on just one or two. I don’t think it was intentionally designed this way, but the three pillars are showcased by the three main leads of the original trilogy: Han Solo is a smuggler, Princess Leia is a rebel, and Luke Skywalker is a Jedi.

While I call them “smuggler,” “rebel,” and “Jedi” for short, don’t get too hung up on the labels. What these three pillars really represent are three different facets of the setting and the kinds of conflicts they emphasize. Han Solo is a smuggler, but the pillar he represents also includes bounty hunters, crime lords, and scavengers. Some rogues have a heart of gold, but everyone is at least a little bit scummy. This pillar is where morally grey conflicts and anti-heroes are most at home.

The best example of a property with a one-pillar focus on this is the Mandalorian’s first season. The Jedi and rebel pillars certainly aren’t absent, but the Jedi, Imperial remnants, New Republic X-wing pilots, and so on are viewed from the perspective of a Mandalorian bounty hunter. This also demonstrates that a one-pillar focus isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you know what you’re doing. In fact, when the second season expanded to the other two pillars, it damaged a lot of the Mandalorian’s identity and focus. If season two was the last season, then this was a good decision. These tie-ins worked really well in the moment, and there’s no point conserving a resource (in this case, the Mandalorian’s focus) that you have no intention of spending later. If the Mandalorian is going for a third season, though, I fear that season two might’ve set it up for mediocrity.

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Why Was Jolee Bindo Even In Knights Of The Old Republic?

Jolee Bindo is a companion character in KotOR, a former Jedi who’s left the order. When it comes out that Player One is Darth Revan, he makes a point of saying he won’t judge them, and there’s a conversation with Bastila where he insists he’s not a Jedi anymore and she shouldn’t think of him that way or expect him to behave like one. In terms of alignment (which can’t be altered by player action for any character except their own customizable protagonist), he’s firmly neutral, leaning only slightly towards the light.

Until you reach the end of the game, when suddenly he insists that you must redeem yourself and turn to the light. He’s read ahead in the script, you see, and knows that there are only two outcomes: You embrace the Jedi Order and save the Republic, or you become an insane psychopath and Sith Emperor. The entire neither-Jedi-nor-Sith thing that Jolee Bindo was carrying water for is chucked completely out the window.

Now, you can only have so many ending cut scenes, so you can’t have endings where you ditch the war and become a pirate or retreat to a hermitage on Dagobah and leave the whole mess behind or destroy both the Sith and the Republic to plunge the galaxy into chaos. Ultimately, the ending of the game is about a battle between the Sith and the Republic and one of those two is going to win, so the ending cut scene will depict one of those two things. That’s fine, resources are limited.

But you could do a lot more with those two cut scenes than they actually do. In the light side ending, you are unambiguously a Jedi who has returned to the order and forsaken the dark side, but the only thing that makes this clear is not-Yoda saying as much.

All it would take is a couple of new voice lines to acknowledge an ending where you reject the Jedi for brainwashing you twice (once through childhood indoctrination, then again with Force powers) but write off the Sith Empire as a failed experiment and defend the Republic. Instead of a line about the return of a prodigal knight, not-Yoda will have a line where he says the Jedi will be waiting to welcome you back if you change your mind about leaving or, if the budget is so tight you can’t even record a few extra lines, just cut that part completely and have the cut scene end with the Republic officer giving you a medal.

Contrariwise, Dark Bastila’s speech announcing the return of Lord Revan can say basically anything and the cut scene would still look the same. This one needs new voice lines to change its context rather than working reasonably well only by removing dialogue, but you don’t need any new animation for an ending that suggests that (whether they will succeed or not) Revan intends to use the Sith Empire to bring justice and order to the galaxy, so that threats like the Mandalorians, the Czerka Corporation, and the Exchange will no longer menace the Outer Rim. You could also have Juhani not turn on you for this one because of her experiences growing up, and have her standing off to the side in this version of the cut scene (the ending cut scene is in-engine, so this addition should be trivial – and if it isn’t, leaving her out of the ending cut scene wouldn’t be the end of the world, Canderous and HK-47 aren’t present either).

A cut scene in which you soak the Republic for millions of credits in exchange for your assassination of Darth Malak would benefit from some new animations in the Republic cut scene, but wouldn’t require a new set or any animations that aren’t used elsewhere in the game. You’d want to stage the cut scene slightly differently so that Canderous Ordo (if you’re dark-leaning) or Mission Vao (if you’re light-leaning) can give a few voice lines about loading all the credits up onto the Ebon Hawk, since the player character is unvoiced (the player clicks on their dialogue options but no lines are ever spoken).

Setting the player up for these different endings could also be accomplished entirely with the existing conversations on Rakata Prime, first at the temple summit and then on the beach where the Ebon Hawk has landed.

Of course, if BioWare wants to make a game which is ultimately about Jedi and the Republic versus Sith and the Empire, and forces you along one of two endings because they want to focus on the primary conflict of the Star Wars universe, that would be fine – but this brings back the question in the post title: Why, then, have Jolee Bindo in the game at all? A character whose whole schtick is rejecting the Jedi but still opposing the Sith?

There’s other ways you could reinforce the inevitable break between light and dark, Republic and Sith, like having Juhani and Canderous get into a fight over what happened to the Cathar homeworld that results in one or the other of them leaving your party (this would also be a much better way to deliver Juhani’s backstory than the exposition dumps she gives in the game, but that’s true of everyone except Zaalbaar and T3-M4). This would make it clear both that the light and the dark ultimately don’t mix and also side Juhani firmly on the light side, when her fall to darkness (however brief) somewhat implies that she might be more morally flexible than she ultimately is (even if you convince her to kill someone for revenge, she immediately regrets it and does not change alignment or decide to stick with you if you go dark side – I think this might’ve been a planned option that was cut for time). Or you could replace Jolee entirely with a more overtly dark-aligned Force User (a Sith would be politically bizarre, but some kind of Witch of Dathomir type would work, especially since their recruitment on Kashyyyk would be almost unaltered) who plays shoulder devil to Bastila’s shoulder angel, so instead of a character who draws focus towards rejecting the light/dark dichotomy, you have a character who emphasizes it.

But the simplest way of fixing this problem would be to just have Jolee Bindo be an unambiguously light sided character. He hasn’t abandoned the Jedi Order, he’s just communing with the Force on Kashyyyk for a couple of years, a perfectly Jedi-y thing to do. He doesn’t refer to himself as a former Jedi and has no conversation with Bastila where he insists she respect his departure from the Order, because he’s still a Jedi. He can still be less prone to voicing an overt opinion on your decisions compared to Bastila, but even if he’s more reserved about his exact thoughts and feelings, it’d still make sense that he turns on you if you embrace the dark side on Rakata Prime, because he’s a Jedi, plain and simple. Unlike the proposed changes in the previous paragraph, this doesn’t even significantly overhaul the game. A good impressionist (or Kevin Michael Richardson reprising the role) could probably mod this fix into the game without much difficulty. Even easier from the perspective of first building (rather than modding after the fact) the game, you could just not have Jolee Bindo at all. He doesn’t contribute anything to any of the themes that the game actually pays off.

But instead they have Jolee Bindo, Jedi in disguise, who’s there to make you think this game includes alternatives to the Jedi/Sith dichotomy and then gives you a Jedi ending and a Sith ending with no variants or third option whatsoever.

Three Is Not Enough Party Members For A BioWare Game

Back in the golden age of BioWare, their party members set a new standard for what a party member could be in an RPG, especially a western RPG with a (more or less) customizable protagonist. Which is why it’s so infuriating that the party limit for these games is as low as three.

I’m defining the “golden age of BioWare” here as the time between Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect 2, inclusive. You can fuss with the exact boundaries of that, and I’ll freely admit that the only reason I’m not including Neverwinter Nights is because I never played it. A quick Google confirms it has a maximum party size of two, and if it’s got the character quality of Baldur’s Gate before or KotOR after, that isn’t nearly enough. But let’s stick to what I have direct experience with.

Continue reading “Three Is Not Enough Party Members For A BioWare Game”

The Traveler’s Guide to the Darkwood Post-Mortem

The Traveler’s Guide to the Darkwood crowdfunded from May 1st to May 16th. It got a total of 347 backers and raised $6,007. This is a 20% contraction from the average 437.2 backers I got for Harlequin, Kessler, Caspar, Ozaka, and Cora, the five books of the previous series where I’d hit a plateau and was getting fairly consistent results. We’re in a new series now, so it’s not clear how much data from the old series applies, which means we’re back in speculation mode.

It’s possible that the series is totally unsustainable, kept as high as it is only by the momentum of the previous series. If this is the case, my backer count will steadily decline until it falls below the 300 backers (ish) needed to justify the ongoing existence of the series and it shuts down halfway through.

It’s possible that I’ve immediately hit the plateau for this series, and 300-400 is the new normal. This is going to be extremely punishing on my budget, because that is enough to justify the series, but barely.

It’s possible that the new series just needs to build up momentum and get exposure effect working for it just like the old one. If this is the case, we should see at least 10% growth from each project until a plateau is reached, most likely in the same 400-500 range that the last series plateau’d. A backer count of at least 380 (roughly 10% growth) in the next project would indicate this is the case.

There’s also another variable, which is that I’ve started experimenting with buying advertising services. The idea is to buy some ad services’ fairly affordable packages and see if they’re profitable, and if so buy a more expensive package and see if it scales. Today’s candidates are Olivia and William, the “duo expert crowd funders” who send lots of Kickstarter messages to everyone who tries to crowdfund anything. That certainly suggests they’re not the most effective crowdfunding marketing that exists (when you’re the best, clients usually come to you), but I probably can’t afford whoever that is anyway, and they don’t have to be literally the best ever to be worth it. If sending a DM to every crowdfunding project on the platform works, then that means they have successfully advertised themselves and can probably do the same for me.

But the results are looking pretty grim for them. It’s impossible to say for sure how much worse the project would’ve gone without their support, and from the analytics they sent me, they did successfully get three thousand people to click through to my project. If we assume that 1% of those clicks actually pledged and the vast majority of them are being hidden in the “direct traffic no referrer information” category, then they might be responsible for as much as 30 of my backers, for an average of $520. Considering I paid $200 for a 10-day advertisement package, this most optimistic estimate suggests that they were worth it, albeit barely, and that there’s little room to scale for a project that only lasts 15 days anyway.

But that’s blindly assuming that 1% of all clicks turn into pledges. More careful examination paints a more pessimistic picture. A little over 400 of the clicks came from Twitter. Only one backer came via Twitter (backing at a fairly standard $17). If we assume a standard rate of 1 backer per 400 clicks backing at an average of $17, that’s about $127.50, which means they aren’t even making me back the money I paid them for the campaign.

This assumes both that the rate for other pledge sources (which are too vague in Bitly’s dashboard for me to draw firm conclusions about) had an identical hit rate to Twitter, masked by Kickstarter’s “direct traffic no referrer information” category, and that the one Twitter backer actually came from this advertising campaign and not from my own tweet. My Twitter presence is really bad so this is a reasonable assumption, but as a counterbalance to the very optimistic $520 scenario, there is also the very pessimistic $0 scenario where that one Twitter backer was a lucky pick-up from my own tweet and the entire advertising campaign accomplished nothing. Certainly the only tweet that ever mentioned me (and it came from an account I’ve never seen before that does nothing but tweet about crowdfunding, so I assume it’s part of Olivia and William’s campaign) got a grand total of four likes, one of which was from me, so while I put my money on the $127.50 scenario being closest to the truth, I think the $0 scenario is more likely than the $520 scenario. In fairness, I was biased that way from the beginning – my thought here was always “I should at least check if these things work” rather than “surely this is the missing ingredient to push me over 600 backers!”

So long as the budget permits, I still intend to try other advertising services to see if some are more effective. I’m worried that effective advertising has a floor cost of several thousand dollars, which my campaigns just don’t make enough to justify, but it’s possible that effective advertising that works at small scale does exist, even if it’s lost in a sea of mediocrity. For that matter, if this second series does pick up momentum over time, I might give Olivia and William a second chance. It’s possible that this first campaign was let down by a weak product rather than a weak advertising campaign.