Diablo colors and the Forge Town method, Mass Effect, et al.

I'd managed to put off a blog entry for a few days, because I didn't want to do too many at once.  Apparently that has transformed into weeks without anything.  Pretty stupid tendencies I have.  It's a pretty big blog, but just skip the parts you don't care to read, even if that means the whole thing :)

Stuff that's come up:

Los Colores del Diablo y La Ciudad de la Forja


I was reminded of an earlier incident when all this Diablo design stuff started (where a lot of people, based Blizzard's E3 demo of Diablo III, voiced their discontent over the choice of colors in the game), that of New World Computing's attempt to bring the full mythology of Might and Magic into the Heroes line.  Might and Magic, from the beginning until about 9 I think it was, had science fiction elements.  The creators wanted to bring this back with what they called the Forge town, a new group of hostiles which threatened the whole of Erathia.  When I saw some of the design stills I was a bit disappointed, but mainly because of their aesthetic decisions, not because of the idea itself.

Others were not happy, though, and sent quite a few angry letters to New World Computing, demanding that they keep the game purely fantasy.  This apparently included a few death threats to the lead designer.  Death threats.  For a game designer.

Ghosts of what might have been.
I'm not sure when all this indignation started, where people think that creators are parental figures we can just whine to until we get our way.  Design work is hard, and while this is a consumer based industry, it is also, at least sometimes, approaching art.  What I mean is that the design of some games can sometimes transcend mass appeal and approach an interesting, unique vision.  Whether or not the Forge town would have ever been that, I don't know-- I do think, though, that we should leave the designers alone and allow them to make their own decisions.  If they always have to respond to popular sentiment, or even popular anger, what little chance mainstream games have to make bold statements will be further diluted.

I don't think it was a coincidence that the Heroes series became a bit diffuse after Armageddon's Blade, which had become the new version of the originally planned add-on that had the mediocre elemental town instead of the forge town, as well as a new, generic fantasy derivative plot.  I don't think they should have buckled to fanatic threats and should have released the forge town anyway, but they were right: why bother to put effort into the project if the direction you want to take the game in results in death threats.  It's the entertainment business, not transcendental humanism or a medical breakthrough.

Writing about this still makes me bitter, and it makes me wonder where the hell people get off trying to bully a game company into doing what they want.  It's one thing to voice concerns and complaints; I have a laundry list of concerns for various games that I know could improve certain games, and I'm sure many other people do too.  I think this incident and others like it, though, crosses some sort of line, and becomes too intimate.  It's as if game companies were some institution working for the public, and that the public has every right to spend hours and hours plaguing these guys about their decisions (should politicians get this kind of haranguing, maybe we'd have a better-run state).  Thing is, these pet games people feel the need to try to alter are just single pinpricks of light in the entire night's sky of games.  Those of us who complain about yet-another-Zelda game or yet-another-Mario game forget that fan pressure is on Nintendo to keep pumping out the same damned properties over and over again, as if consumers were babies who are endlessly entertained by a game of peek-a-boo.  I think enough of us would like to see Nintendo's inventiveness pointed toward new enterprises, but because the fanatics are louder, Nintendo's creators seem to feel trapped into producing retreads.

One of the advantages of capitalism is that we can vote with our dollar, and the creators will listen.  If we wait until the end product comes out and we still don't like how it looks, we don't buy it.  So if you don't like Diablo's colors, show them they made the wrong decision and let it go by.  That is, if the colors are really that important to you.  Personally, I'd say that if you wanted that kind of aesthetic, there are countless artists out there working for pennies who produce great art that evokes the same sorts of feelings.  We don't need a single hack and slash game to inspire our imaginations.

These Ten Choices or Nothing


A short note to say I'm a bit tired of the automated 10 choices that pop up when I try to type something up not having anything to do with what I'm trying to say.  I think they should maybe add things like "franchise" as invisible keywords, and negative values like you can in Google to exclude results.  Otherwise it becomes almost impossible to list stuff you want to list, or write to people whose name you happen to know but are too short not to be differentiated from a bunch of people with similar names.

Still, I realize the staff behind the site are a hard-working bunch, so I'll just put this out here to see if anyone has any workarounds they can suggest until the site is more under control.  As many people keep reminding me, it's still in Beta after all.

Mass Effect Has a Chance to Be Revitalized


I was interested in Mass Effect since news of its release came out.  The closest I ever got to owning it, though, was in my recent procurement of their book of concept art.  I don't have any sort of system that can play Mass Effect, but I was still excited about its upcoming release, and I read and re-read Mass Effect reviews, participated in polls, downloaded art, and all the things you're supposed to do as a loyal fanatic :)  The reviews seemed to say consistently that there were some problems, though.  My outsider's perspective allowed me to continue to enjoy the design aesthetics (especially for tools, ships, and architecture.  I prefer designs of more truly alien aliens, usually), but I want Mass Effect to get closer to the design aesthetic they were shooting for.

Where I thought things might improve would be the potential for expansion content.  The first that came out, Bring Down the Sky, I assume was probably well into production when the main game was released, to ride the wave of interest, so I wasn't expecting much.  But now that Mass Effect has been out there a bit, I think they have the potential to create a significant add-on for Mass Effect.  What follows are some ideas how this can be accomplished.

Bring down this guy.
While it may be a bit hard to balance things out, an improvement on the party AI would satisfy a good number of players.  This is probably the single most complex fix, but I think it needs to be done to make the game's apparently frequent combat more satisfying, whether or not you take advantage of the Orders mode.  Having intelligent conversations with your party and then having them bumble around, get stuck in corners or get in the way doesn't do much for the game's atmosphere.

The Mako sounds like it needs to have a vertical auto-aim, at the very least, or a more versatile turret that can point vertically as well as turn horizontally.  Again, this would contribute to the verisimilitude while making combat a lot less frustrating.

And finally, I think the absolute biggest improvement from my outsider's perspective would be the inclusion of a significant boost to the amount of side missions you can perform, and environments you can explore, in uncharted space.  Right now it seems that there are a few buildings, a few scenarios, repeated frequently.  Planets need to be diversified, and a big roster of random encounters, perhaps with procedurally generated situations to save space and labor, should be added to make the universe feel a bit more real.  This may sound like the most complex of my suggestions, but I think with a good matrix of scenarios, it's entirely within reason to assume it's possible.  It might also help if the reason for the player landing could be expanded, including aid and resupply missions, and events that may not always result in predictable outcomes.

This last one would be a situation where the more you add, the better, so it would be a big content dump.  But I think these things would create a better platform for the sequels to stand on, and help do justice to this well-fleshed-out universe.

See?  No threats.

Star Raiders, Totally Profiled


I was surprised how much information flooded out of my fingertips when I decided to add a bit to the Star Raiders page.  It just kept coming, and now you can see for yourself what kind of weird stuff lay hidden for decades in my mushy brain.  It helps that this was the first game that truly captivated me.  I spent a lot of time just experimenting, trying to get one of the passing "stars" to be charged directly to see if it got any bigger (it just disappeared) or to see what would happen with the refueling pod if it was abandoned (it wanders the stars forever).

The design is STILL compact and elegant, and considering its code is crazy small compared to the modern behemoths, it only illustrates to me how something was lost in the second gaming boom (or third?  I dunno.  No need to be too dramatic with these names).

Check out my profiles, if you're curious.

Notes from Xeen


I originally wrote the following a while ago, back when I was overwhelming myself with blog ideas.  Now that I've calmed down I can dump it here without worrying about it burying better ideas:

I did it.  I beat World of Xeen.  Unlocked all of the endings (I'm assuming there were three), accidentally sold my most of my Sorcerer's equipment instead of fixing it, avoided the Megadragon entirely, ending with my Cleric aged to double the rest of the party (to a spry 65 or so) through her use of Divine Intervention spells (I can run to the fountain of youth, but I wonder if she might want to keep her wrinkles for a while as a sign of her sacrifice for the party.  She's an uncommon gal :) ).  All in all, pretty fun.

I took the unusual route, like I like to do, and tackled the harder of the two sides of Xeen first.  The Darkside tended to have harder enemies roaming about, harsher penalties for not paying attention to clairvoyance before opening chests or drinking from wells, many tough dragons.  The upshot of this was, though, that the experience rewards quickly shot through the roof.  Using certain processes I was able to shed off artificial aging, thereby making some rather large experience point bonuses feasible for my group. In the end, my top character (a half-orc robber, I was being deliberately non-traditional with that choice) was a level ahead of everyone else at 111.  I'd reached a point where I didn't really have enough money to spend on training, and it was getting to a point where I could kill just about anything in one or two good hits from my warrior classes. 

I think it's a credit to this game that I want to play it again, this time tackling Clouds of Xeen first, and picking a different group of classes and seeing what my favorite weapons will be this time through (before the "obsidian" ones start rolling in).  For those into the pornographic details, I had:

Towers are always suspicious
A pampered Male Dwarf Barbarian
A strong Female Human Knight
A resourceful Male Human Archer
An oft-used Female Half-Orc Robber
A venerable Female Human Cleric
An often unconscious Male Gnome Sorcerer

In the tradition of Talislanta: Still No Elves!

Xeen continued to entertain me with its meta references (sign posts with names of New World Computing software products), its strange puzzles (a knowledge of Star Trek actually helped a bit more than I was comfortable with :)), cool music (well, there's one song, one of the three tower/dungeon songs in Xeen, which I absolutely love for its menace), and its competent cut-scenes. 

In some ways I liked it better than the last Might and Magic I had played some ten years earlier, Might and Magic II.  In other ways, not so much.  I liked how you were forced to leave party members behind in II.  It forced you to change your strategies.  The skill limitations were interesting when they weren't a hindrance, although I could have done without II's need for a forgetting-service to clear a space for new skills.  I liked how monster stacks could be huge in II; combat felt a lot more challenging when you were facing a hundred monsters. In Xeen you were never in melee with more than three, although you could find yourself surrounded by ranged attackers.

What Xeen did do was clarify a displays, make gameplay more user friendly and smoother, make the graphics a whole lot better and more detailed, and made the dungeons just a bit less sadistic.  Or maybe I've changed, it's been 10 years after all.  What I know for sure was that it was a great nostalgia trip, while feeling relatively new.

It leaves me feeling a bit empty, though, wondering what Jon von Caneghem and crew could have come up with had they decided to stick with the old formulae and keep building on them.  They're still around, of course, making new things, and I wish them the best.  I sorta hope, actually, that some of the impish humor, world-shattering revelations, and stereotype breaking mechanics and design choices make it into the new projects of the still-active members.

As a side note, after I wrote the above I started out a party and concentrated on the Clouds of Xeen side instead.  Once I got powerful enough through beating the Darkside, the Cloud side was mostly a cakewalk for my characters, which was probably the only disappointing aspect of the end-run.  I'll put up my new party roster later, for posterity's sake if nothing else, if I keep playing.

---

Anyway, that's enough for now.  Glad I finally made a post after all this time.
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Posted by ahoodedfigure

I'd managed to put off a blog entry for a few days, because I didn't want to do too many at once.  Apparently that has transformed into weeks without anything.  Pretty stupid tendencies I have.  It's a pretty big blog, but just skip the parts you don't care to read, even if that means the whole thing :)

Stuff that's come up:

Los Colores del Diablo y La Ciudad de la Forja


I was reminded of an earlier incident when all this Diablo design stuff started (where a lot of people, based Blizzard's E3 demo of Diablo III, voiced their discontent over the choice of colors in the game), that of New World Computing's attempt to bring the full mythology of Might and Magic into the Heroes line.  Might and Magic, from the beginning until about 9 I think it was, had science fiction elements.  The creators wanted to bring this back with what they called the Forge town, a new group of hostiles which threatened the whole of Erathia.  When I saw some of the design stills I was a bit disappointed, but mainly because of their aesthetic decisions, not because of the idea itself.

Others were not happy, though, and sent quite a few angry letters to New World Computing, demanding that they keep the game purely fantasy.  This apparently included a few death threats to the lead designer.  Death threats.  For a game designer.

Ghosts of what might have been.
I'm not sure when all this indignation started, where people think that creators are parental figures we can just whine to until we get our way.  Design work is hard, and while this is a consumer based industry, it is also, at least sometimes, approaching art.  What I mean is that the design of some games can sometimes transcend mass appeal and approach an interesting, unique vision.  Whether or not the Forge town would have ever been that, I don't know-- I do think, though, that we should leave the designers alone and allow them to make their own decisions.  If they always have to respond to popular sentiment, or even popular anger, what little chance mainstream games have to make bold statements will be further diluted.

I don't think it was a coincidence that the Heroes series became a bit diffuse after Armageddon's Blade, which had become the new version of the originally planned add-on that had the mediocre elemental town instead of the forge town, as well as a new, generic fantasy derivative plot.  I don't think they should have buckled to fanatic threats and should have released the forge town anyway, but they were right: why bother to put effort into the project if the direction you want to take the game in results in death threats.  It's the entertainment business, not transcendental humanism or a medical breakthrough.

Writing about this still makes me bitter, and it makes me wonder where the hell people get off trying to bully a game company into doing what they want.  It's one thing to voice concerns and complaints; I have a laundry list of concerns for various games that I know could improve certain games, and I'm sure many other people do too.  I think this incident and others like it, though, crosses some sort of line, and becomes too intimate.  It's as if game companies were some institution working for the public, and that the public has every right to spend hours and hours plaguing these guys about their decisions (should politicians get this kind of haranguing, maybe we'd have a better-run state).  Thing is, these pet games people feel the need to try to alter are just single pinpricks of light in the entire night's sky of games.  Those of us who complain about yet-another-Zelda game or yet-another-Mario game forget that fan pressure is on Nintendo to keep pumping out the same damned properties over and over again, as if consumers were babies who are endlessly entertained by a game of peek-a-boo.  I think enough of us would like to see Nintendo's inventiveness pointed toward new enterprises, but because the fanatics are louder, Nintendo's creators seem to feel trapped into producing retreads.

One of the advantages of capitalism is that we can vote with our dollar, and the creators will listen.  If we wait until the end product comes out and we still don't like how it looks, we don't buy it.  So if you don't like Diablo's colors, show them they made the wrong decision and let it go by.  That is, if the colors are really that important to you.  Personally, I'd say that if you wanted that kind of aesthetic, there are countless artists out there working for pennies who produce great art that evokes the same sorts of feelings.  We don't need a single hack and slash game to inspire our imaginations.

These Ten Choices or Nothing


A short note to say I'm a bit tired of the automated 10 choices that pop up when I try to type something up not having anything to do with what I'm trying to say.  I think they should maybe add things like "franchise" as invisible keywords, and negative values like you can in Google to exclude results.  Otherwise it becomes almost impossible to list stuff you want to list, or write to people whose name you happen to know but are too short not to be differentiated from a bunch of people with similar names.

Still, I realize the staff behind the site are a hard-working bunch, so I'll just put this out here to see if anyone has any workarounds they can suggest until the site is more under control.  As many people keep reminding me, it's still in Beta after all.

Mass Effect Has a Chance to Be Revitalized


I was interested in Mass Effect since news of its release came out.  The closest I ever got to owning it, though, was in my recent procurement of their book of concept art.  I don't have any sort of system that can play Mass Effect, but I was still excited about its upcoming release, and I read and re-read Mass Effect reviews, participated in polls, downloaded art, and all the things you're supposed to do as a loyal fanatic :)  The reviews seemed to say consistently that there were some problems, though.  My outsider's perspective allowed me to continue to enjoy the design aesthetics (especially for tools, ships, and architecture.  I prefer designs of more truly alien aliens, usually), but I want Mass Effect to get closer to the design aesthetic they were shooting for.

Where I thought things might improve would be the potential for expansion content.  The first that came out, Bring Down the Sky, I assume was probably well into production when the main game was released, to ride the wave of interest, so I wasn't expecting much.  But now that Mass Effect has been out there a bit, I think they have the potential to create a significant add-on for Mass Effect.  What follows are some ideas how this can be accomplished.

Bring down this guy.
While it may be a bit hard to balance things out, an improvement on the party AI would satisfy a good number of players.  This is probably the single most complex fix, but I think it needs to be done to make the game's apparently frequent combat more satisfying, whether or not you take advantage of the Orders mode.  Having intelligent conversations with your party and then having them bumble around, get stuck in corners or get in the way doesn't do much for the game's atmosphere.

The Mako sounds like it needs to have a vertical auto-aim, at the very least, or a more versatile turret that can point vertically as well as turn horizontally.  Again, this would contribute to the verisimilitude while making combat a lot less frustrating.

And finally, I think the absolute biggest improvement from my outsider's perspective would be the inclusion of a significant boost to the amount of side missions you can perform, and environments you can explore, in uncharted space.  Right now it seems that there are a few buildings, a few scenarios, repeated frequently.  Planets need to be diversified, and a big roster of random encounters, perhaps with procedurally generated situations to save space and labor, should be added to make the universe feel a bit more real.  This may sound like the most complex of my suggestions, but I think with a good matrix of scenarios, it's entirely within reason to assume it's possible.  It might also help if the reason for the player landing could be expanded, including aid and resupply missions, and events that may not always result in predictable outcomes.

This last one would be a situation where the more you add, the better, so it would be a big content dump.  But I think these things would create a better platform for the sequels to stand on, and help do justice to this well-fleshed-out universe.

See?  No threats.

Star Raiders, Totally Profiled


I was surprised how much information flooded out of my fingertips when I decided to add a bit to the Star Raiders page.  It just kept coming, and now you can see for yourself what kind of weird stuff lay hidden for decades in my mushy brain.  It helps that this was the first game that truly captivated me.  I spent a lot of time just experimenting, trying to get one of the passing "stars" to be charged directly to see if it got any bigger (it just disappeared) or to see what would happen with the refueling pod if it was abandoned (it wanders the stars forever).

The design is STILL compact and elegant, and considering its code is crazy small compared to the modern behemoths, it only illustrates to me how something was lost in the second gaming boom (or third?  I dunno.  No need to be too dramatic with these names).

Check out my profiles, if you're curious.

Notes from Xeen


I originally wrote the following a while ago, back when I was overwhelming myself with blog ideas.  Now that I've calmed down I can dump it here without worrying about it burying better ideas:

I did it.  I beat World of Xeen.  Unlocked all of the endings (I'm assuming there were three), accidentally sold my most of my Sorcerer's equipment instead of fixing it, avoided the Megadragon entirely, ending with my Cleric aged to double the rest of the party (to a spry 65 or so) through her use of Divine Intervention spells (I can run to the fountain of youth, but I wonder if she might want to keep her wrinkles for a while as a sign of her sacrifice for the party.  She's an uncommon gal :) ).  All in all, pretty fun.

I took the unusual route, like I like to do, and tackled the harder of the two sides of Xeen first.  The Darkside tended to have harder enemies roaming about, harsher penalties for not paying attention to clairvoyance before opening chests or drinking from wells, many tough dragons.  The upshot of this was, though, that the experience rewards quickly shot through the roof.  Using certain processes I was able to shed off artificial aging, thereby making some rather large experience point bonuses feasible for my group. In the end, my top character (a half-orc robber, I was being deliberately non-traditional with that choice) was a level ahead of everyone else at 111.  I'd reached a point where I didn't really have enough money to spend on training, and it was getting to a point where I could kill just about anything in one or two good hits from my warrior classes. 

I think it's a credit to this game that I want to play it again, this time tackling Clouds of Xeen first, and picking a different group of classes and seeing what my favorite weapons will be this time through (before the "obsidian" ones start rolling in).  For those into the pornographic details, I had:

Towers are always suspicious
A pampered Male Dwarf Barbarian
A strong Female Human Knight
A resourceful Male Human Archer
An oft-used Female Half-Orc Robber
A venerable Female Human Cleric
An often unconscious Male Gnome Sorcerer

In the tradition of Talislanta: Still No Elves!

Xeen continued to entertain me with its meta references (sign posts with names of New World Computing software products), its strange puzzles (a knowledge of Star Trek actually helped a bit more than I was comfortable with :)), cool music (well, there's one song, one of the three tower/dungeon songs in Xeen, which I absolutely love for its menace), and its competent cut-scenes. 

In some ways I liked it better than the last Might and Magic I had played some ten years earlier, Might and Magic II.  In other ways, not so much.  I liked how you were forced to leave party members behind in II.  It forced you to change your strategies.  The skill limitations were interesting when they weren't a hindrance, although I could have done without II's need for a forgetting-service to clear a space for new skills.  I liked how monster stacks could be huge in II; combat felt a lot more challenging when you were facing a hundred monsters. In Xeen you were never in melee with more than three, although you could find yourself surrounded by ranged attackers.

What Xeen did do was clarify a displays, make gameplay more user friendly and smoother, make the graphics a whole lot better and more detailed, and made the dungeons just a bit less sadistic.  Or maybe I've changed, it's been 10 years after all.  What I know for sure was that it was a great nostalgia trip, while feeling relatively new.

It leaves me feeling a bit empty, though, wondering what Jon von Caneghem and crew could have come up with had they decided to stick with the old formulae and keep building on them.  They're still around, of course, making new things, and I wish them the best.  I sorta hope, actually, that some of the impish humor, world-shattering revelations, and stereotype breaking mechanics and design choices make it into the new projects of the still-active members.

As a side note, after I wrote the above I started out a party and concentrated on the Clouds of Xeen side instead.  Once I got powerful enough through beating the Darkside, the Cloud side was mostly a cakewalk for my characters, which was probably the only disappointing aspect of the end-run.  I'll put up my new party roster later, for posterity's sake if nothing else, if I keep playing.

---

Anyway, that's enough for now.  Glad I finally made a post after all this time.
Posted by Ax

Ahhhhh!  It's like twenty blog entries rolled into one.  I guess I'll just leave brief comments for the sections that caught my interest.

Diablo

Yeah, I actually avoided reading most of those color complaints and was surprised to find out weeks later that people had problems with them.  If you ask me the game looks fantastic and vibrant and alive...much more interesting to watch than the original games.  Here's to hoping the developers don't cave in to the pressure, but a part of me worries that they might.

It's amazing how afraid people are of change even in video games.  You're completely correct that the masses continue to demand the same thing year after year from these companies, while original stuff like Psychonauts, Zach and Wiki, Beyond Good and Evil, etc...just languishes on the shelves for whatever reason.  What impresses me is when a company manages to somehow work within these sorts of constraints to create a game like Super Mario Galaxy.  Yes, much of the structure of that game is owed to past Mario games, but the fresh art and level design helps to make something that feels both old and new at the same time.  Not an easy feat.  A good example of a game that doesn't succeed at this is Twilight Princess, which doesn't feel at all fresh despite having some new elements.  I don't envy the position Nintendo is in with these games and am constantly impressed when they manage to make an old idea feel new.

Mass Effect

Yes.  You nail many of the best possible improvements to this game.  Impressive since you haven't played the game.

Other Stuff

I did read the rest, but don't have much to add to it.

Posted by ArbitraryWater

Wow. Many an entry. I too am a heroes fan, but heroes III was really the last good one. I believe there is a team that is working on a forge addon for the unnoficial WOG addon, although it appears to be in limbo though.

Online
Posted by HistoryInRust
Regarding Mass Effect:

I am not sure what I want out of the squad AI -- greater control of the individual members; more variation amongst character roles; a better decision-making intelligence -- but I know the game does not satisfy my needs.  Initially I assumed a tighter squad mechanic, maybe something along the lines of Star Wars Republic Commando (sans scripted cover objects), would give me a better sense of flexibility.  Allow my sniper to match his namesake while the team's tank and I roll into the battlefield with weapons and veritable Force powers at the ready, for instance. 

But with that thought comes the realization that the game's level design, for as much of a "sandbox" as Bioware claims it to be, is too fundamental, too linear, to effectively harness that sort of squad control mechanic.   

Which ultimately brings me into agreement with the argument that Mass Effect's galaxy is simply too empty and too constrained.  Bioware blankets the game with the illusion that the player can visit any of a myriad number of planets and complete any amount of side-quests, but the fact of the matter is that there are too few locales to explore (and concordantly, too few side-missions), and the side-quests the game encourages the player to complete are unhelpful dead ends.  Case in point -- one of the crew members on the player's ship sells weapons and armor to the main character.  However, he states his selection can only be expanded by obtaining the "licenses" he needs to buy/sell other, superior, brands of weapons.  The game renders this exercise in tedium unneccessary by providing the player with high-end supplies through the bullet-ridden corpses of fallen enemies.  One need not worry about getting said license, because the item one wants has been stripped from the cold, dead hands of an adversary anyway. 

There are further complaints I have with Mass Effect, personally.  They range from narrative blunders to simple inventory management (which is also a hairsbreadth away from being a contradictory, steaming turd), but I will hold back my whip and end on this note: 

Mass Effect is good.  It is no Knights of the Old Republic, but boy, does it try.