Video game balance is a never ending struggle for developers. There are few (if any) examples of games that have just the right balance between all of their factors. Every type of game struggles with getting everything just right, and I think that’s great.
Video game balance is not something I thought much of before getting really into Dota 2. Now it’s something I think about frequently. In the past I’d occasionally dismiss things that destroyed me in multiplayer games as overpowered and bullshit, but now I try to figure out why the strong things are strong. Naturally I always tried to play around it, but now I actively make an effort to figure out how to play around the metagames that develop in my multiplayer experiences.
Balance updates reinvigorate games, promoting experimentation and keep them from going stale. Without balance changes games will eventually fall into a stagnant metagame with only one way to play. What’s the use in settling on that, when a simple buff here or a nerf there every once in a while can lead to sweeping changes across a game’s meta?
In Blizzard’s real-time strategy game StarCraft II, Protoss players almost never used the “Immortal” unit until a balance patch granted them 1 more range. A buildup known as the Immortal All-In became the Protoss race’s most prominent and talked about build out of nowhere for a long time.
Blizzard’s card game, Hearthstone also sees occasionally balance updates. A particular “Undertaker” card recently got nerfed, creating a healthier metagame that didn’t revolve around one card of hundreds. Blizzard’s approach to balancing Hearthstone seems to be mostly nerfing strong cards rather than buffing weak cards. It’s this approach that seems most common among developers.
From a time investment standpoint, it is much easier to identify what’s overpowered and do something about it, but some developers do find time to buff the underpowered things. How developers approach balance puts them on a spectrum, between nerfs and buffs. Most developers lay towards the nerf side, but with Dota, Icefrog and Valve are on the other side of that spectrum, and to me buffing the underpowered stuff makes for a far more interesting game overall. Players who enjoy the overpowered stuff won’t be alienated, but more subliminally come to realize the thing they enjoyed isn’t as overpowered anymore, because everything around it has gotten better. There are always going to be cases in which overpowered things are so blatant that they will require a nerf, but if developers can get away with it, I think buffs are generally going to be the best option.
An older example of why nerfing overpowered things isn’t always best would come from my time with the shooter Modern Warfare 2, one of my favorite multiplayer experiences. I enjoyed doing several things in Modern Warfare 2. I loved running around with akimbo model 1887s, care package speed and commando, and using the one man army perk with grenade launchers (noob tubes). The first two of those were destroyed by nerfs, and this resulted in a widespread adoption of the one man army, noob tube combo. It became the only thing anyone did. The combo was a best kept secret sort of thing because of other things, and it was more ridiculous than either. Once those other things were nerfed, the game lost any balance it had and was ruined. Infinity Ward even tried to nerf the one man army perk after its rise to no avail. In hindsight I think the whole nosedive that game took could have been avoided with buffs to the stuff no one was using rather than nerfs to what was good. Conceptually Modern Warfare 2 was already outrageous. It featured a tactical nuke killstreak that ended the game and a chopper gunner that basically secured 10 kills without fail. How outrageous would it really have been to buff something no one used like the scrambler perk?
Dota sees major updates every few months. I started playing with Version 6.79, and got my first taste of an update when last year’s New Bloom Festival hit. It brought a myriad of changes to nearly every hero and some items as well as adding two new heroes. Mostly the changes were buffs to the less popular heroes with a few nerfs to some of the more popular ones. Some popular heroes got buffs anyway. This mostly buff approach to balance has intrigued me, and ever I have poured over every update’s changes since. When version 6.82 dropped, Dota felt like a brand new game. The patch included many subtle tweaks to heroes and items I’d come to expect. In addition, the map was altered; two heroes saw overhauls and the gold and experience systems were heavily modified, effectively changing how the game was played.
Similar to how a series like Call of Duty updates every year with a new game that tweaks its perk system and updates weapons, maps and the like, games like Dota are evolving in much the same way. If Call of Duty were a solely multiplayer experience like Dota, the biggest difference between the two would be between their business models.
Regular updates can skyrocket a game’s potential. It can be risky, but bad changes can always be reverted. I’m of the mind that prioritizing buffs to the underutilized is better than nerfs to the overused. Nerfs risk alienation of the players that enjoy those things, and buffs make the players who don’t, feel better about what they do enjoy. Either way, not issuing balance patches is to risk a mass exodus because the metagame became stale. I suppose there is the possibility that a “perfect” metagame be achieved, but until then, I’ll be plenty happy dissecting the patch notes of the games I play.
It's a new year and it's bound to be more exciting than last year. Why? Because all the games we wanted last year got pushed to this year, and it's not like that happens every year... or does it? Despite a number of solid games, 2014 didn't quite live up to the indie movement of recent years and was something of a mess on the AAA end of things. There was a lot of disappointment for big new IPs like Watch_Dogs and little innovation from the sequels out there like Far Cry 4. But before I turn this into and Ubisoft is bad rant let's talk about the year ahead.
2015 is gonna be a year. Games are gonna come out. Some games we think are going to come out won't come out. It's gonna be great. I'm excited and you should be too for some of these games that might come out in 2015.
The Will it Come Out Award:
Jonathan Blow released Braid in 2008. He announced his follow-up in 2009. I've been expecting The Witness to be released every year for 5 years now. Is this year the year for the surely mind-bending puzzler? I don't know. I do know that I loved Braid, so even if Blow makes me wait another year to see Soulja Boy's mind explode, I will.
Runners Up: Broken Age Part 2, Routine
The Will it Come Out Fo Real Award:
I have no interest in DayZ, but it seems like that standalone thing was announced and released on early access ages ago. It seems like ages ago that DayZ was even a thing people were into. Maybe I've lost touch, but DayZ still isn't out fo real yet, and something is telling me it won't be by the end of the year, Bohemia is.
Runners Up: Prison Architect, Kerbal Space Program
Game that is most likely Frog Fractions 2:
You think I know? Because I don't.
The Oversaturation Award:
I like Don't Starve and games like it, but when I looked at a list of games coming out this year I saw a stupid number of survival games. It hasn't been that long since the survival genre really came into its own, and I suppose it was only a matter of time before the market capitalized. A few examples can already be seen on Steam's Early Access, The Long Dark, The Forest, Rust, Project Zomboid and others like The Flame in the Flood continue to pop up and look promising, but how many more comers can the genre really sustain before the whole thing becomes a bit stale. Survival elements even seem to be making there way into other games.
Runners Up: Space Sims, Open World Ubisoft Games... Oh wait...
The New Trend:
Big Publishers Believing in Singleplayer Games
The booming trends of recent years have been Indie games, zombies, Rogue-likes, Early Access games, Local multiplayer's resurgence, the aforementioned survival genre. Even space sims seem to be making a comeback. This year the big trend will be big publishers trusting in Singleplayer experiences again. It happens every now and again with certain developers such as Irrational with Bioshock, Rockstar with Grand Theft Auto and Bethesda with Elder Scrolls, but I think last year's Wolfenstein: The New Order caught a lot of people off guard and showed a real demand for the singleplayer game. Will a lot of these games come out this year? Probably not, but I'm hopeful a bunch will be announced. Look, I'm trying to be optimistic here okay.
Runners Up: Game Demos with Announcements a la P.T., E-sports focus on more games
Coolest Art to Preview:
It's the Greek art style and the Greek art style alone that makes me want to play Apotheon. I'm not sold on the rest of the package, but I seriously like looking at it. Seriously, look at it.
Runners Up: Return of the Obra Dinn, Jotun
Franchise Nintendo Will Most Likely Continue to Forget Exists:
Miyamoto said he was unsure where F-Zero could go after GX. F-Zero GX is one of the most thrilling racers out there and we're going on 12 years since it came out, so it came out before online console gaming was even a thing. That'd be a start Nintendo. Give me some online F-Zero so I can fly off the track and lose immediately with witnesses.
Runners Up: Eternal Darkness, Wave Race
Which Series Microsoft Will Most Likely Bring Back to Please Gamers:
Space sims are back. Games like Elite: Dangerous and Star Citizen are at the forefront of this recent movement, and it'd only seem natural for a business such as Microsoft to capitalize in some way. Freelancer wasn't the most loved game of its day, but as one of the last Space Sims of its day it garnered quite a cult following. Star Citizen is likely where that cult will end up, as its director, Chris Roberts, also played a role in the development of Freelancer, and a lot of the same ideas are being carried over. I doubt that would dissuade Microsoft from capitalizing on an opportunity to bring back a game from a long dead genre that seems to be on its way to a new golden age.
Runners Up: Crimson Skies, R.C. Pro Am
How Sony will copy Nintendo or Microsoft this year:
I'll leave this one for you to speculate. Sony does a lot of following in the other two of the Big 3's footsteps. They started to embrace indie developers like after a few stories about Microsoft's embrace was revealed to be rough on some of the indie devs. Sony made the Playstation Move to get in on some of that Wii money. The Vita is being integrated to their consoles the way the Wii U controller integrates with its console. They started charging people to play multiplayer like Microsoft. They also introduced voice commands to the PS4 in some sort of attempt to emulate the Kinect voice commands. Sony has even hosted their own Playstation events a la Nintendo Direct. Sony seems to be having a lot more success than either company at retaining the core gamer and it seems to have been accomplished by being a bunch of copycats. Will it be a Sony Kinect? Will they announce a Playstation All-Stars Kart or a Playstation All-Stars Tennis? It could be any of these things or maybe it'll be the year Sony gets copied by Microsoft since they may be a bit more desperate. Time may tell.
Most Surprising Not Surprise:
Bethesda Game Announcement
In 2011 Skyrim was released. It's been a few years since then. Most of us probably would have thought Fallout 4 would've been out by now. Oblivion was released in 2006 and Fallout 3 in 2008. Based on recent trajectories of Bethesda's releases, last year should have been the year, but it wasn't. We're due for something, whether it's the next Fallout or the next Elder Scrolls game. It'd be surprising and exciting either way, but at the same time, expected.
Runners Up: Red Dead Announcement, Mirror's Edge game delayed/cancelled
Most Anticipated Game:
It's real close between this and The Witcher 3, but ever since I laid eyes on Demon's Souls the series has been my favorite video game thing. Anything Hidetaka Miyazaki touches I'm sure I will love. So it looks a lot like the Souls games we've already gotten, and a lot of people didn't like Dark Souls II for that reason. Well, I loved Dark Souls II despite Miyazaki not leading on it, so with him leading on Bloodborne, GOTY 2015 is its award to lose in my mind. I might sound hyped or whatever, but hype for a game like this is irrelevant for me. I would say I'm not even excited for it. I just know I will love it.
Runners Up: The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, The Witness
So in January in an act of rebellion towards StarCraft II I decided I'd try out the other big competitve online game with a "2" in the title, DotA... 2. I partook in this shit festival of a game for nearly 2000 hours just this year, and it borderline consumed me. It stopped me from pursuing my passion of playing all kinds of games, and you know what? Under the right circumstances I would say it was worth every minute, but every now and then it hits me just how much I hate Dota.
Don't get me wrong, there is plenty to love about Dota. Endless playmaking potential, team compositions and progressions are just a few of the reasons Dota reeled me in. It was the same story for me with StarCraft II. I got hyper competitive and crawled my way up to diamond league despite severely lacking in mechanical skill. I watched the pros play, learned builds, experimented and watched Day9 tell me what's good and why. I still have my very first ranked match of StarCraft II saved, and it's pretty incredible just how much better I got over the few years I played it.
Old replays of my Dota exploits will tell a similar story, but instead of laughing at it and feeling accomplished, I only cringe at how awful I and the other people in those matches were. That's the kind of person Dota is turning me into. When I started I was determined to be the all forgiving "it's just a game" type, but after logging so many hours I've become very critical of people's decisions, progressions and item choices. Thankfully, I still manage to keep those negative thoughts to myself or at worst, any friends I happen to be playing with.
Playing so much Dota has taught me a lot about myself in that respect. It tries me, putting my patience too the test at all times. It has made me think a lot about people and what all the dirtbags are going through that made them that way. I often wonder if I keep playing will I become like them, or if I'm already one of them? I've certainly seen my likeminded friends fall into that pit.
When I started playing Dota 2 I figured I'd be back to StarCraft after a couple of matches. How wrong I was. It was like I started playing StarCraft II for the first time again. I was learning so much so fast. In StarCraft I had felt that I pretty much peaked with my 60-80 APM (actions per minute). It became apparent that that wasn't going to get me too much further against opponents with two, three or even four times that number, regardless of my game knowledge. Dota was a breath of fresh air in that respect. Instead of control dozens of units at once, now I only had to control one guy (for the most part).
It was exciting to learn about each individual hero and how the dynamic of the game changes based on each team's hero composition and to figure out what items work best in various situations. With a pool of over a hundred heroes and a similar number of items, Dota's potential seems limitless. In addition to teaching me about myself Dota has taught me a lot about the sort of game it is.
It's an everlasting game that thrives on its community, which makes sense since it is a multiplayer game. It has the power to keep large and passionate player base, as evidenced by a crowdfunded prize pool in excess of ten million dollars for The International 4, the biggest such prize pool for a digital sport event. The Steam Workshop is another place to see the communities passion in action. Hundreds of artists are creating cosmetic content at any given time, so Valve can sell it. While I personally haven't seen the merit in purchasing cosmetics, it's a large reason that Dota is so profitable as a free-to-play game. This same passion surely has its downsides, as it's probably what drives so much of the community towards its know-it-all madness.
Another big part of Dota is patches. Balance updates in particular have the potential to make Dota feel new again. I guess I'd equate it to playing a new Call of Duty every year with the obvious plus side that you don't have to buy another copy, and the updates are far more frequent. A multitude of adjustments make it feel like a brand new game, even though ultimately, it's still just Dota.
I went through a similar thing playing StarCraft II, albeit to a smaller degree. Small balance patches would hit every now and again shifting the meta game ever so slightly. One day Immortals are next to useless and the next they're essential to any Protoss army composition, and every matchup had to now consider how best to play around that. I've talked to friends who obsessively play those other League of Legends and World of WarCraft games and they have only echoed my sentiments about patches.
"Turn rate improved from .5 to .7," "Base attack damage increased by 4." These things sound small, because in the grand scheme of things, they are. This year saw several big updates to DotA with hundreds of changes just like those two I mentioned. These things add up and heroes that are deemed overpowered are brought down, different heroes step up to replace them and the whole meta game shifts around. This all happens in a game with practically unlimited possibilities as it is. It's why Dota doesn't seem to ever get old.
They say the first step is to admit you have a problem. Well, I have a DotA problem. I never played a MOBA before this year, and this year DotA 2 was practically the only game I played. I would chalk that up to 2014 being kind of lackluster in the game department, but now that I'm finally getting around to playing some more of this year's games I'm beginning to realize that 2014 wasn't so bad after all. I was too consumed by Dota to notice them. I'm hopeful that I'm just about done with DotA 2, but I'm sure when the next balance patch hits, I'll be reeled right back in.
So you’re playing a game of Dota, and it’s going poorly. You’re getting rolled into the ground. You look at the scoreboard and see you’ve managed to get a few kills and a good number of assists, but you’ve racked up a hefty number of deaths too. Everybody on your team is doing about the same or worse. Who’s going to start it? Probably the one who said, “good luck have fun everyone :D” before the match began. Call it a hunch. Call it instinct. You know it’s going to be them. Why wouldn’t it be? Are you a wizard or a fortuneteller, or have you now played enough Dota to know that the community is as two-faced as someone like Two-Face? Well, the eyes are on you because everyone else has died, and you’re going to whiff on your ultimate ability that probably wouldn’t have even netted you a kill had you landed it anyway, because in case you forgot, you’re getting rolled.
“lol noob void”
You’re just going to let it go though, because that’s the better thing to do. Hold the phone. This one has more to say.
“noob void report”
Your teammate has turned into a spam bot, and the chat is now filled with comments calling you a noob and telling everyone to report you. You decide you can’t let this one go like the rest, so you tell him to calm down, that you’re having a bad game and no one else is doing much better. Who is going to come to your aid? Well, no one, because your other teammates are now in cahoots with this one, and they seem quite content to throw you under the bus. You know how in Good Will Hunting Robin Williams says, “It’s not your fault”? Well, it’s all your fault. All of this is on you, because it’s certainly not on any of them.
“I’ve never seen a shit void on ranked”
Well, you’ve had enough. It’s time to lash out.
“I’ve never seen a shit doctor”
It’s over. You’ve lost, but now you’re in it. You have to fight this losing battle. You know you don’t have to, but you even check the score to see that this person giving you the most grief is indeed doing the worst on the team, and it isn’t even close. Even so, your pleas for reason fall on deaf ears, because you weren’t the first to whine and point your finger. You are going to be the one getting reported for whatever it is you did wrong. Perhaps fighting back made it worse, and you deserve some form of punishment. The next day when you see that you’ve gotten no word of action being taken against anyone, and that you’re in the low priority punishment pool, you’ll know why.
This is the fundamental problem with Dota 2. It’s distressing that a game’s biggest issue isn’t some technical flaw or core gameplay fault, but it’s actually the people who are playing it. The multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) culture is distracting. When you’re consistently placed in a negative environment it’s hard to tell if playing these games is worth your time.
Valve seems to at least be aware of the plagued culture that engulfs the MOBA genre. Otherwise there wouldn’t be a punishment pool. The commendation and report system within Dota 2 also must be a result of that knowledge, but it doesn’t appear to do any more than delude us into thinking we’re making the community a better place when in fact nothing is changing.
I no longer stand up for myself, believing that part of the issue as to why I got placed in a low priority punishment pool was because I defended myself. But guess what? I still get placed in the low priority punishment pool. I could play ten matches in a row and help my team win, but because I played poorly in the eleventh I’m in the low priority punishment pool.
It feels like the report system ought to do more. Although I suppose it might make things worse if reports did much more than put you in a low priority match, especially when having a bad game is enough of a reason for punishment.
You can report people for communication abuse, intentional feeding and intentional ability abuse. Feeding is the term people use to describe dying over and over, thus giving the opposing team more money to work with. An example of ability abuse would be something like teleporting a teammate to a place in which they die or are trapped. It’s rare, but sometimes these things do happen. The report function states these things have to be intentional, but the community doesn’t think so.
Here are some common phrases of the Dota community vernacular.
“*insert hero name here* noob”
“X noob report”
“this team… report X and Y”
So what are the grounds for people to start slinging accusations of noobery around and demand the reporting of said noobery. Well, I’ve started a list that certainly isn’t limited to the following…
· Not running in and dying after your teammate has run in and died
· Running in and dying after your teammate has run in and died
· Dying: also known as “feeding”
· When your teammate initiates a fight by himself and you weren’t there to help
· Not finishing someone off
· Finishing someone off
· When you’re farming
· When you’re not farming
· Making an item your teammate thinks you shouldn’t have made
· Not making an item your teammate thinks you should make
· Not having good items at any given point
· Missing on an ability or using an ability not to your teammate’s standards
· Attacking creeps
· Getting last hits on creeps
· Not getting last hits on creeps
· Not denying creeps
· For not knowing something
· Straying from the team for any reason at all
· Not sticking to the role your teammate thinks you ought to fill
· Picking a certain hero
· Not picking a certain hero
· When you’re winning
· When you’re losing
· When you’re doing or not doing just about anything
“Commend me,” is another common expression, and it is often used by the kind of people that spout garbage like “report” and “noob.” After every match it seems like someone is requesting commendations. It might be a form of trash talk I haven’t quite identified as such, but for the most part it seems commendations are misused like reports. Commendations don’t appear to do anything other than provide some semblance of self-satisfaction that others might think you’re a good person, or more likely, good at Dota. Doing well isn’t a category for commendations, but it seems that much of the community thinks that is whole point of the system. You can commend a player for being friendly, forgiving, for being a teacher or for leadership. I have not yet found where I can commend someone for "wrecking scrubs and talking down."
I’m sure plenty of people use the systems Valve has created the way Valve intended, but sometimes I get curious. When the a player on the opposing team typed into the chat, “your Magnus sucks,” I wondered what kind of reputation this person must have. Lo and behold, I am as in tune with my wizardry and fortunetelling talents as ever as this person had 25 commendations for friendliness, much more than most players I’ve bothered to check. It might be I just don’t know how to make friends, because the only reply on my team was “yep,” by a player faring much worse than the Magnus. Who knew the path to making friends was to make the first thing you say an unwarranted insult? It might be worth mentioning that I was playing as Magnus, and that is what prompted my investigation. Otherwise, I probably would have just ignored it had it been another player like my other three teammates did. Maybe that is part of the problem.
Even if no one on your team is playing the blame game, chances are the other team is. I would say that the losing team gets all of the negativity, but even when you’re rolling through the other team, teammates are still capable of lashing out. You might happen to get a kill that wasn’t “yours,” so they brand you a kill thief, or you might die in an silly way and a teammate accuses you of throwing the game, even though that was your first death and everyone else has died seven or more times already. Whether a team is winning or losing, the people playing lash out over some of the smallest details.
Regardless of reputation systems, the maliciousness of other MOBA communities is pretty out in the open. To go into the psychology of what makes these people say the petty things they say might prove interesting. Were they having a bad day? Did someone just say the same about them? Have they lost every match they can remember playing recently? Perhaps these questions might lead to solutions, perhaps not. Perhaps malicious people don’t deserve a response. Perhaps the people saying these hurtful things deserve our pity more than our retaliation, but maybe telling them as much is far more hurtful than anything they’ve said. Killing them with kindness might still kill them after all. What’s apparent is that Dota 2 is often turned into something it wasn’t supposed to be, a game of blame.
Dota 2 ought to be a good competitive arena, a great one even, but it is dragged down by a problem everyone seems to know about and finds easier to accept rather than fix. The community is exceedingly hateful and unforgiving. With how loud the bad ones get, it sure doesn’t seem like the few good people or even the silent exist. It would be a lot easier to determine if playing Dota 2 was worth the time and effort it takes to play it (which is a lot more than most games), if every other match didn’t result in insults and finger pointing.
What is good? What is bad? Chances are the game giving you a choice is telling you the answer. Video game morality is often black and white, or maybe it’s red and blue. There is often little room for grey or purple.
Infamous: Second Son uses player choice a lot like the previous Infamous games. You are rewarded with good karma for deeds deemed to be good and evil karma for deeds deemed to be evil. Being good will grant you access to powers exclusive to that alignment. Evil will do the same but with the evil alignment. This sort of defeats the purpose of having a player choice system in the first place, because you’re being told what’s good and what’s bad.
The weird thing about Infamous’ choice system is that it works. Infamous’ hook is the whole comic book hero and villain thing. It’s isn’t necessarily thought provoking, but regarding how the game plays and how the story unfolds, it works. It isn’t practical for you to change your tune on a whim. You’d be giving up too much to suddenly become good after being evil for so long. It makes for easy choices, which benefits you and keeps you on the path you started on, but it also means the choices don’t really matter. If you choose to be good at the start, you’re probably going to be good until the end.
Infamous: Second Son even goes extra lengths to ensure that you stay on your chosen path, locking missions based on previous choices or your karmic disposition. This sort of thing works best when your game is as black and white as Infamous is. Playing through a second time to see the other ending is easier when everything is so clearly labeled for you. It’s a system not without its positives, and it’s easier to understand. The problem is that it feels like a gimmick, even if it is sometimes effective.
There have been strides made to get away from this sort of system in games like Telltale’s Walking Dead that forces you into impulsive decisions or non-decisions by adding a timer. A closer look at the Walking Dead reveals the choice you make doesn’t matter too much, because the end result is often the same. However, there is still the social experiment end of it, where at the end of each chapter it reveals what choices other people playing the game made. Regardless of if you took a peak behind the curtain to break the illusion, it’s interesting to compare your choices to the masses.
The Witcher series puts you in the shoes of a character who isn’t expected to be a hero or villain. The distinction of good and evil is more up to the player than the game with the choices you will make as Geralt. The Mass Effect series approached choice by making all the choices result in the greater good. Choices were labeled as good and bad, and there often was a more neutral option, but it still benefited you most to lean completely to one side and play the game over if you got curious as to how it would have looked if you had taken the other side.
Games will continue to explore the concept of morality and player choice, especially those in which its core to the game. With its more simplistic red and blue morality model, Infamous: Second Son served as a good reminder as to how much player choice has evolved in recent years. It will continue to evolve, but it seems to me that there is already a pretty good place to start.
A choice and its consequences will have much more of an impact when I get to decide what the right and wrong choices are. I don’t want the game telling me what is good and what is bad. That sort of black and white concept has its place, but in order for video game morality to grow, being grey should be more appealing. Most people aren’t all good or all bad. Most people are somewhere in the middle. Choices and their consequences ought to better reflect that. Let me be purple, but also let me think I’m blue.
With its Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls series’ boss encounters, From Software has displayed a deft handling of the boss concept. Regardless of how difficult, there always seems to be some X-factor making Souls bosses more memorable. Some are gigantic, some are monstrous or disgusting, some are a spectacle, some are relentless, some require outside thinking, some are just waiting for the right moment to crush your hopes and dreams, some are even compelling or sad and in Demon’s Souls there is even a boss you can be.
When they want to be, the folks at From Software are masters of subtlety. Their mastery has impressed me so much that whenever there are destructible pillars in an arena I expect something to happen when all of them are destroyed. Nothing has in that particular set of circumstances, but it seems like something is always making a boss battle more dynamic. Because the Souls games are so punishing, you often spend your time so focused on enemies you might not even realize what is happening around you or why enemies behave in certain ways.
Take the Gaping Dragon from the first Dark Souls. It’s a massive crocodile looking lizard, and when it gets on its hind legs it reveals a whole new terrifying side of itself. As intimidating as it can be, this dragon is smalltime, because as you may or may not have realized, the dragon is blind. Many bosses barely give you a moment’s respite, but all it takes against the Gaping Dragon is to back up while it runs into another wall. The fight becomes almost trivial once you know how it works, which is how Souls games often work in the first place. However, because the Gaping Dragon is such a good example of From’s boss design, there is even more to it.
Compensating for the dragon’s blindness is a sorcerer who, if not killed before beginning the fight against the dragon, will endlessly rain magic down from on high. This sorcerer just appears to be an ordinary obstacle in the area leading up to the dragon, so you might never know the true value in his disposal, and if you missed him or thought it better to go around him you’ve probably already suffered his magical rain. This in-level boss barrier is also used for the Iron Golem and it’s used in Dark Souls II. Demon’s Souls featured a more clever and radical approach to the in-level barrier, making it literally possible to get past one of its bosses without doing something very specific earlier in the level.
Another great example of From’s subtlety is the Flexile Sentry in Dark Souls II. At first it just appears to be a really cleverly designed creature with its twist being there is no way to get behind it. It’s an interesting design, because one of the most efficient Dark Souls tactics is to lure something into an attacking and then whale on it when its back is exposed. Despite its design, there is a mast in the middle of the arena that makes this tactic as viable as ever, and the boss battle ends up being one of the game’s easiest because of it. What makes this fight more interesting is the ankle high water, slightly impeding your flow of movement, and you’re probably going to be too focused on making sure the boss doesn’t get around that mast to realize the water eventually rises to your waist to greatly impede your movement.
If it wasn’t for the mast, the Flexile Sentry might be one of the game’s hardest bosses instead of one of its easiest. Regardless, it highlights what From Software understands better than most developers. The arena in which you fight something can make all the difference. It isn’t until you reach the Demon Ruins in Dark Souls that you see that Capra Demons aren’t so bad when they’re out in the open and not rushing you alongside two of their pets the second you enter their claustrophobic dwelling.
There is a set of stairs in the Capra Demon boss’s lair that if reached makes the boss much more manageable than it initially appears. It’s that arena’s mast. When a Souls boss seems like massive roadblock, there is usually (not always) something you’re missing. There might be something in the arena that you can use to your advantage like a set of stairs, a mast, perhaps there are ballistae waiting to be fired, or maybe you just missed something outside of the boss arena.
Sometimes the arena itself is the true boss battle. A boss in Dark Souls, the Dark Sun Gwyndolin, turns a small hallway into an endless one. He warps away from you every time you get near him too. It’s as if you’re fighting the endless hallway and the only way to defeat it is to kill the man firing arrows and magic at you. It isn’t until you defeat him that you are reminded just how small that hallway really is.
Some bosses are more difficult up front, and some get more difficult as the battle progresses. The aforementioned Capra Demon is an example of a boss that’s more difficult up front. The boss has the opportunity wind up for an early finishing blow while its minions immediately bum-rush you. These kinds of bosses end up becoming more difficult across multiple fights as a result. If you’re dying, you’re generally dying quickly, and you don’t get to see all the boss has to offer, so when it whips out a move you haven’t seen before you might react the wrong way and die again.
From also employs the more common and reverse approach of a boss becoming more difficult as the fight goes on as well. However, they often think outside the box and go beyond increasing a boss’s damage output, or at least do it in a clever way. Some bosses change their attacks up or add new attacks as the fight goes on. One boss sets its sword on fire for more damage, but not before setting itself on fire, so you can’t get in close.
Additional bosses showing up in the midst of a fight is commonplace for the Souls series, but a fight that begins with multiple bosses is only going to get easier as it goes on. However, Ornstein & Smough of Dark Souls are an interesting duo, because fighting them could be argued to fit either category of harder up front or harder as it goes on. Up front you have to deal with both of them at the same time, but when the first one falls the other absorbs what remains of them and becomes a powerful mix of the two.
Some bosses have a special attack that changes everything. In Demon’s Souls a boss could steal a level from you. In Dark Souls II, one boss devours you and unequips all of your items before spitting you out. Other bosses are like the Gaping Dragon and have a unique characteristic about them such as blindness. One might regenerate health and another curses you.
In some instances, there isn’t anything special going on, and a boss is what it is. So many bosses are out there trying to distinguish themselves, and some already know who or what they are. These more pure boss encounters benefit more from the boss’ appearance and behavior. The Flamelurker is a great boss because it’s relentless, but there is nothing extraordinary behind the scenes of the fight. Because so many bosses have quirks, the bosses that don’t are interesting because they feel more pure.
Maiden Astraea, a boss of Demon’s Souls, is unlike any other in the series. Sif, the Great Grey Wolf of Dark Souls sort of hits the same tragic note, but not as effectively. Upon entering Astraea’s domain, she will ask that you turn back the way you came. She doesn’t want to fight you. Astraea has a guardian, Garl Vinland. Garl will only fight you if you provoke him and if you run away he will not pursue you. If you go around Garl to fight Astraea, she will use her magic defensively, and like Garl, she won’t give chase should you flee. If you kill Garl, you can talk to Astraea. She hopes you’re satisfied that you got your demon soul and commits suicide. If you kill Astraea before Garl, Garl will kill himself since he’s failed to protect her. It’s a tragic encounter that puts your quest into question. Every other boss you fight is some sort of monster, but Astraea doesn’t appear to be that at all. In their Souls series alone, From Software has displayed an unparalleled ability to make bosses strike all kinds of chords.
From Software isn’t immune to making mistakes with their boss battles though. Boss battles that repeat throughout the game are rarely a good substitute for a new boss. The Stray Demon and Demon Firesage of the first Dark Souls are the Souls equivalent to a repeating boss battle. They are re-skinned versions of each other, and they are already based off of game’s tutorial boss, the Asylum Demon, except they’re bigger.
The Bed of Chaos in Dark Souls is prime example of a failed boss experiment. It is rooted so deep in luck and trial and error that it is the only enemy in the series that doesn’t reset after you die or leave the area. Even so, the Bed of Chaos shows that From isn’t afraid to explore new ways to keep one of the core concepts to its series fresh. The Executioner’s Chariot of Dark Souls II, feels like a much more successful attempt at the spectacle fight From was going for with the Bed of Chaos.
With a wide array of concepts at their disposal From Software mixes up its boss battles in clever and often subtle ways. Each boss has its own pacing accentuated by one or many of From’s stable of concepts. Some bosses are more difficult up front, some get more difficult as they drag on and some just have a clever twist about them you may not even notice. There is plenty to admire about the way From Software has handled bosses, so while I wait for the next round of Souls bosses I’m content enough to dream of ceilings and walls collapsing when all those pillars crumble.
Whether I think they are good or bad, these are some songs that could use the Saints Row treatment, or something similar anyway. Volition has a knack for putting the right licensed music to the right moment. My favorite parts of both Saints Row: The Third and Saints Row IV wouldn't be the same without the tracks that accompany them. This list probably isn’t complete, and I keep thinking of more to add all the time (hence the “ish” in the title). Some are obvious, some maybe less so.
They should bring back I Need a Hero by Bonnie Tyler at some point. It is too perfect. The football music too, I always welcome football music used for anything but football (this Fox Sports theme would be great). Part of me also hopes they find a way to put Safety Danceto use, which is already in IV, but not for any key moment.
And no, this post isn’t over yet, the most important song for inclusion is, drum roll please…
It’s not that I see a particular way to integrate this song into Saints Row, or that I think this better than the rest of the songs; it’s that I like making fun of Creed, and I like when other people or things make fun of Creed. I also always thought the chorus was "'CAUSE I'M A MONKEY, I'M A MONKEY." And no, that isn't the chorus to With Arms Wide Open, but the jokes on you, I know you listen to Creed.
Yeah, so this is it for this list for now... I'm really bad at good byes... Um, yeah share your own possibly better picks or thoughts or something.
Hey everyone, the clock has reached midnight and it's Tuesday... This is for me, because I am a selfish asshole who needs to find peace through writing...
I probably should have let the tears flow. I didn't, for whatever reason. I fought them, not letting a stupid single one pop out of my eyeballs, and now I'm struggling again. I've never met Ryan; he's never met me. We don't "know" each other. Why should I care so much about him? I've thought a lot about that question with that in mind. Why am I so affected his tragic and sudden passing?
I know why. Because I did "know" him. Years upon years of watching quick looks and listening to Bombcasts, watching On the Spot, reading and watching reviews I came to know Ryan and the rest of the people making giantbomb tick. I've spent the better half of today doing exactly that, watching old quick looks and laughing my ass off at Ryan with his infectious laugh. It's a real testament to his personality that he still makes me forget that something really bad has gone down, and it's been touching to see all of the love this man has received in his passing. He deserves every bit of it. He's brought a lot of joy into many, many lives.
I also do know the people of this site, even if they don't know me. They've made the internet another home for me. These people are the reason I'm interested in writing about and discussing video games. They have helped me discover my passion for the medium. As weird as it is, I'd always loved the idea of working with them, and it feels real bad to know I'll never have the chance to work with Ryan. We share a first name, and I've always found that to be neat for whatever reason. Ryan is a common name; it shouldn't mean shit, but for some reason it always did to me.
I offer my heart and sincerest condolences to those most affected by his passing, his wife and family, the giantbomb crew, and everyone else who loved Ryan. He didn't make it hard to do so and I can't imagine what you're going through.
Ryan was the best kind of asshole, so fuck Ryan Davis. Fuck that rad and bad motherfucker who left us all far too soon. I regret that I was never able to meet him. I know I would have been in for a treat. It's really hard to know just how much someone even as off as they distance they might be can mean to you. Ryan Fucking Davis will be missed, but he can and should Rest in however he damn well pleases.
Thank you Ryan Davis
*This has been tagged with Fuck Quest 2: Romancing the Bone because I typed "fuck" and didn't know that was a thing and its stupidly dumb*
Let's get this out of the way. Sony has pretty much won the next console war already. The announcement of no used game restrictions was Sony stabbing Microsoft. The no DRM announcement was Sony twisting the knife. When the price was announced Sony finished Microsoft, cutting their throat.
Or so it would seem.
People are sometimes smarter than we give them credit for, but they are also sometimes dumber. That isn't to say all future Xbox One consumers are dumb. However, a good chunk of those consumers could be.
$499 vs. $399 seems like a no brainer, right? But what about the people who want to have the top tier machine? Microsoft's machine is more expensive, therefore it's better or more powerful. The Xbox One is the weaker machine, even if it's not by much, but the price seems to suggest it's the stronger one, and more ignorant consumers might make that leap, thinking they might as well invest in that extra $100.
A lot of people still associate Call of Duty with Xbox. It was better on Xbox 360, so it'll be better on Xbox One too, right? Microsoft still has the timed exclusive map packs and has even elevated Battlefield map packs to that status. The only place to get Titanfall on console is Xbox. Halo is still a big deal. The Xbox One is still looking like the Multiplayer First Person Shooter machine. Sony could do even more damage to Microsoft by really marketing the PS4 versions of Call of Duty and Battlefield. Killzone looks solid, and Destiny is a good pickup to help negate some of Microsoft's advantages here, but Microsoft is still way ahead.
We all know there are the diehards for every system. They will continue to exist even if their numbers dwindle. Some people have only had Xboxes, and won't feel comfortable jumping to Playstation. It's as simple as that. We live in a world where people buy every iteration of the iPhone every year, because, because. Given all these points, the Xbox One might not be dead on arrival after all.
The Xbox One is very much a console caught between two worlds. The Playstation 4 is great right now, but as gamers move towards the digital future in the coming years will Sony's console keep up? No doubt Sony will have the games going forward. They have the household names like Naughty Dog holding down the fort. Microsoft on the other hand finally seems to be making strides to win back gamers with exclusives beyond Halo and Gears of War. Will it last? Who knows? Because Xbox One ships with a Kinect, developers will be able to better capitalize on its capabilities. Somehow, some way tens of millions of people have purchased Kinects. That could be important as the we get deeper into the next generation. The Xbox One will have a wider feature set as an entertainment system than PS4 no matter how you look at it. Twitch support is beyond huge. I don't know about you, but all I see on my Xbox friends list is people using Netflix and other apps. The possibilities have only grown with the Kinect for what can be done with those apps. There is a wealth of potential for Xbox One and if apps remain as important as they are now, and even becoming more important, Microsoft could gain a huge advantage. What Microsoft's doing with the internet could payoff in the long run too if Sony doesn't end up offering similarly robust cloud features. And as intimidating as no used games and DRM sounds. Steam does all of that, yet it is the premier service on which to play games on PC. Microsoft could follow Valve's example and offer huge sales, and cheaper games to make up for the less appealing policies they are looking to have in place.
Kicked in the Ass
Microsoft needed what they got. Microsoft got penisy, and it looks like they're going to be paying for it. Sony's press conference could be just what Microsoft needed to treat its consumers like people over profit. People aren't buying what Microsoft has to say about anything if the looking around on the internets is anything go by. The venom towards Microsoft existed before any of this was known, and Microsoft probably couldn't have won even if from the start, they said there will be no DRM, no used game restrictions, no always online, you don't need to hook in your Kinect. People would still be trashing Microsoft, and Microsoft has only justified that venom. All of the policies we hate that Microsoft is doing can be undone. Will they undo them? Probably not, but through firmware or just a revamp of how the system works online or offline could change a lot about how we perceive the Xbox One and is still in the realm of possibility. Microsoft will be forced to keep up the first party support and get the exclusives to get gamers to see why they have to buy a Xbox One. They're going to have to win back indie developers. They're going to have to re-earn the faith and trust of the consumer, because as it stands right now the Xbox One looks pretty shitty when you look at it next to a PS4, but that could be just the thing for Microsoft to turn things around. Will they work with ISPs and offer subsidized consoles? Will they offer free games similar to Playstation Plus? Will they offer free Gold subscriptions? Microsoft still has options and Sony has all but forced them to make use of them.
There isn't really a clear advantage for either console going either way. The exclusive lineups for both seem pretty weak and expected at the moment, so it's really anyone's game at this point. Indie games aren't as big of an advantage, you'll probably be able to get every console indie game on PC at some point down the road. In the Sony conference they threw around the term "console debut" and showed off a bunch of games that are already available on PC. Microsoft has also proved that they allow developers to release their games on PC too, with such games like Mark of the Ninja. While the indie front is important to some extent, PC dominates it. What's really important is the games that will only be on their respective consoles, the games we literally won't be able to get anywhere else.
Right now, PS4 seems like the only way to go for consoles. I'm with you, but there is still something to the Xbox One, even if its future looks bleak right now.
When we look back to this generation from the next From Software's Demon's Souls and Dark Souls will be two of the revolutionary games we put on a pedestal. Their online innovations, their return to the punishing days of yore, their atmosphere, their refined and precise gameplay. Those things, and that in a time when the "games as art" is being pushed harder and harder, and story is becoming more and more important, they reminded us that it doesn't have to be.
Demon's Souls managed to get gamers' and critics' attention alike, but it wasn't always as positive. Dark Souls got more people's attention, and while it wasn't always positive, the positive stuff seemed to be a lot louder compared to Demon's Souls. Both games sold well and found their audiences, albeit Dark Souls sold better and reached a larger audiences. Why though, does Dark Souls seem to be so much more loved than Demon's Souls? What does it do better?
This debate won't be unlike a Super Castlevania IV vs. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night dispute, which is fitting, because the Souls series isn't unlike how I envision what a 3D Castlevania should be. Dark Souls features the Metroidvania style of Symphony of the Night with its open world, while Demon's Souls features more linearity akin to the original Castlevania and a Mega Man-like hub world. Both styles have their advantages and disadvantages. It would seem the interconnected world of Dark Souls is preferred. It's odd to me that in a time when time is of the essence to everyone, that the slower open world treks from one end to the other are the preferred route. Of course the type of gamers that are going to enjoy the Souls games are sure to have time on their hands. Still, in order to decide to pursue a different angle on advancing through Dark Souls or even just to find a shop owner, I have to go back the way I came, and fight through the hordes of baddies I had just struggled to make it past. Dark Souls does do a good job with the shortcuts, but even so, these journeys can be treacherous and time consuming.
In Demon's Souls I merely have to hit an archstone at the beginning of each area to be brought to the nexus, where I can buy, sell and store items, level up, as well as pick a level to tackle next. It's convenient and fast. Load times may break the immersion and it also loses the popular metroidvania gameplay element. However, I believe Demon's Souls to offer the best of both worlds. It has the linearity of Super Castlevania IV, but each level once completed in a world is connected to the other until the end of that world. There are also several secret areas and world tendency events that beg you to return to those worlds even after their completion, giving Demon's Souls that reason to go back motif that defines a lot of metroidvania.
Demon's Souls and Dark Souls' level and world design feel very well thought out. Both have thoughtful shortcuts, hidden paths, and nooks for loot as well as nooks for hiding. There is an atmosphere in the air of these games, and everything comes together to make it so. The artistic direction is quite similar in both games, but it's easy to see why Dark Souls has its name and Demon's Souls has its name. Dark Souls is more often than not, really dark. The color palette is darker, the places you go are darker, and even the brightest of areas are often dark. Demon's Souls is deceptively bright in some areas. It has plenty of its own dark spots, but the brighter areas bring hope, however false it may be. For third person games the everything works to immerse the players into their experiences. The haunting and epic music, the ambient noises, and disturbing sounds of a blade cutting through flesh, bone and armor all just ramp up the immersion. Suffice it to say that both games feature great, distinct and often disgusting senses of style and atmosphere, but as you may have guessed I like Demon's Souls' warped senses a bit more.
Boss battles are another big part of the Souls games. Those classic fights you remember against Bowser, Metal Man, Dracula, they don't readily exist in modern games much anymore. The Souls games do their best to change that and reinvigorate the ideas of boss battles. In Demon's Souls every boss plays quite differently. The tutorial boss welcomes you to the game with a giant ax in what is a supposed to lose fight, that can be won, and I won't spoil the surprise of that. The first major boss is features dozens of enemies grouped tightly together. Minibosses litter levels, such as dragons and black phantoms. The several towering bosses each have their own weaknesses and strengths. One boss uses its hearing to find you since it is blind, and another comes at you relentlessly often with area of effect attacks. There is a boss that will be fought over and over until a certain deed is done in the level preceding it, so it can truly be defeated. Some bosses fly around, one regenerates health, another can cause you to lose a level, and there is even one boss battle that you can even be for somebody else. Demon's Souls bosses set a new standard for what can be expected and done with boss battles. A lot of games may have a handful of great, memorable bosses, but for Demon's Souls to make each and every one just as memorable as the next, is quite the achievement.
Dark Souls boss battles often approach the brilliance of Demon's Souls' boss battles, but also come up short. While it's probably cool to a lot of people, I find that encountering bosses as common enemies later in the game to be discrediting to that boss battle, and in Dark Souls there are several boss battles like this. Many of these boss fights were great too. However when you took away the confined spaces of boss arenas, many of these "bosses" were revealed to be not much different from any other standard enemy. Some bosses can be pretty thrilling, the bosses in the abyss, an invisible boss, and a twin boss fight that becomes harder when one of the bosses goes down. And just when you think the boss front is looking up, you fight the same boss for a third time, and its just reskinned. Boss battles in Dark Souls are still leagues ahead of just about any other game this generation, but it's hard to compare them to Demon's Souls' fights and not feel a little underwhelmed.
The online features of both games are outstanding precedents for gaming. The seamless online integration in what is an otherwise singleplayer experience make the Souls games stand out. Demon's Souls started it with messages that can be read for hints and tips, or laid anywhere to guide or mislead players in alternate worlds. Other players show up in your world as white apparitions, showing that someone is in the same boat as you. Bloodstains litter the ground like the messages, and serve a similar purpose, recapping the last moments of someone in another world, which you could see as a warning or perhaps as a symbol of your triumph over an area where others have failed. Then of course there are the black, blue and red eye stones. When in soul form a player can lay any of these stones to enter another world as a phantom. The blue eye stone is the most commonly used. When in human form, you have the ability to see blue eye stones, and when activated the stone drags the person that laid it in their world to your world, so that you can work together to conquer an area, a cooperative element. When the black eye stone is laid the stone searches for a world to invade. Invading a world initiates the games PvP element, and it lends itself to many great duels, or if the person invaded had already summoned some blue phantoms, the black phantom may have drawn the short straw. The red eye stone operates as cross between the other two stones. Like the blue stone, it shows up in other peoples' worlds and must be activated by them, however the terms of the summoning are for PvP like the black stone. The idea that all of these "game modes" and gameplay elements are seamlessly integrated into the singleplayer game is a striking proposition, and Dark Souls took it further conceptually, but stumbled along the way.
Dark Souls' online features the same bloodstains, white apparitions, and messages. The message system however, took a step backwards. In Demon's Souls with a few presses of a button you could lay and recommend messages. In Dark Souls you need to cycle through your inventory and actually use an item to lay and recommend messages. It's a hassle, and it has lead to less activity on the message front of the online element in Dark Souls. The invasions and cooperative play are still present and work better because of the limited number of healing players can do, which also lends itself to less tedious item management, on the fly at least. The new faction system, really adds some depth to the whole online scheme of things. It provides additional stake and makes things more interesting. However, it's a very complex and convoluted system that requires a wiki (or some serious in game research) to fully understand it.
The magic systems are slightly different, and for multiplayer purposes Dark Souls is better, though there is something about having a blue mana bar I like. Dark Souls also ditches the grass healing system in favor of a better for multiplayer alternative, a limited number of heals flask system, but for singleplayer purposes I go for Demon's Souls and grinding for all the healing items I can carry should I so choose. Dark Souls also ditches item burden, which in Demon's Souls limited the weight of items you could carry. In Dark Souls you can carry everything you want. It certainly makes up for the tedium that is the bottomless box that Dark Souls has, but again, for singleplayer purposes I like having to decide what loot I'm to bring to where.
Perhaps the biggest thing that can be said in favor of Demon's Souls is that someone tells me I have a heart of gold all the time, that and he stores and keeps all your stuff organized neatly.
I'm not sure how most people feel about the Souls games, but from what I've observed in my time on the internets, it would appear that Dark Souls is the better of the two. I offered my perspective on them both, and I prefer Demon's Souls. Either way, both are outstanding examples of game design, and if you consider yourself a gamer and haven't given either a shot, you should strongly consider doing so.
The timing of this post is not inconsequential. The Demon's Souls servers have managed to stay afloat for longer than anyone expected, but it would appear that all good things must come to an end. May 31st marks that end. It's time to send a game that redefined my expectations of what games can be off in style. Demon's Souls' online will be missed, but not forgotten. For now though, I embark on my last Demon's Souls online quest, to get that monk hat.
As you might have guessed from the crossed out paragraph above, I wrote this in response to the Demon's Souls servers shutting down. The day after I wrote this however, the servers were said to be staying up. A lot has happened since then too. The PC rallied and got its version of Dark Souls with new content that today comes to consoles, and I've been assured that a new patch makes the online a much better experience. So while I never got to explore the realm of the giants in Boletaria, I will get to explore more of Lordran. And for now, I think that is enough.
From Software, a friend has something to say to you. His name is Stockpile Thomas. "You have a heart of gold. Don't let them take it from you."