Thinking about Infinity Engine style games

The stars have aligned and I have a few minutes where I cannot play a game, I cannot do work, and I cannot see people. So, I'm going to attempt to think deeply about Infinity Engine-style games. Why do I love these games, and why do I never complete them? What could be done to help me stick with them?

First, my bona fides as they were around the time Baldur's Gate was released. I had never played D&D with anyone around a table, but I was active in a chat room that encouraged role playing and had a dice engine. I was mostly active in 1 vs 1 "arena" combat between player characters, both as a GM and a combatant. I knew AD&D 2 pretty well. I won't say I had the spell list memorized; but I could tell you how many d4 to roll for a magic missile and how far away you needed to be to cast fireball without getting caught in it yourself without checking the rules. THAC0 calculations are natural to me. I still have to double check my math every time I play D&D 3+. I had dabbled in campaigns as a player, but they tended to fall apart after a session or two.

So, Baldur's Gate came out. I was 15 at the time, living in rural Wisconsin at least 10 miles from my nearest friend. My interest in D&D was pretty close to it's peak. Baldur's Gate seemed like the perfect way to escape. Except for some reason it wasn't. The first year I played it maybe 15 hours. I'd get to Candlekeep and then lose interest. Years later I'd make it to the titular city, kill some zombies, and then fade away. Yet I still recall it as a positive experience.

The same process has happened with every Infinity Engine-style game since. A few weeks ago I started playing Pillars of Eternity; I got about 10-15 hours in.... and I've stopped playing it. I want to play it some more, but if I'm honest with myself I know I won't go back for a long while, and when I do I'll create a new character. The one exception I can think of is Neverwinter Nights 2. I was enjoying it, made a lot of progress on my keep, but... I failed out when I got in a fight with a red dragon that I couldn't beat. So I cheated. And immediately the game wasn't fun anymore.

So what's the problem? Well, the it's easy to get pulled away from these games. In my estimation the stories are all slow burns. The important aspects of the game play are very slow paced and cerebral. While these traits are what I like about Infinity Engine style games, the lack of something faster and flashier gives room for "quick fix" games to come in and steal my attention. PoE lost me when Titanfall 2 went on sale, and Final Fantasy 15 has cemented my time away from the game. Neverwinter Nights lost me to GTA. Dreamcast launch lineup for BG2. Counter-Strike for BG1. It's consistent... these quick hit, fast progression games will steal me away every single time, no matter how much I enjoy the core loop of an Infinity Engine game.

So, how could this style of RPG increase their stickiness to people like me? Well, I see a few things that could be done. The combat could be shortened by increasing damage relative to hit points... but that seems to lack nuance. Another approach would be to add some sort of constant progression. I should never have a session where a quest line goes incomplete or a new skill/piece of gear/keep upgrade remains locked. Keep hitting the dopamine receptors. A 30 minute Titanfall 2 match rewards me multiple times with character, weapon, and mech points. A single kill is satisfying; not just a step in a battle plan. Perhaps move EXP from kills/k.o.'s (which I've never been able to do in an IE game, what gives?) to when they happen instead of the end of the battle... and play some fanfare or give me some other consistent visual reward when it happens. It could be as easy as a mischievous grin on my character's profile picture.

My final suggestion is to introduce minigames. I understand we're emulating turn based dice combat under the hood but... Give me a small challenge to add +2 to my crit chance or a bump in damage for a few seconds. Something as simple as Gears of War's active reload system or a small puzzle would be huge for my engagement. When I play D&D with people, I can impress the DM with clever thinking or good role play. When I play a computer version, I lose that in-the-moment skill element. Minigames would help supplement the strategy portion of the loop with smaller successes that can keep the experience compelling over multiple hours. It's something jRPGs have included (FFXV's stamina meter, FFVII's limit breaks, etc) to make the player feel more involved in the moment-to-moment of the game.

The classic Bioware/Obsidian games and Obsidian's retro-style games will always have a special place in my heart. But let's not fetishize their game design. A revival of this style of game is ripe and possible... but an effort should be made to adapt to modern sensibilities as rogue-likes and adventure games have done recently.

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Extra Life 2013

Hey duders, been a while. How are you? I'm great. Thanks for asking.

Extra Life is coming up. If you haven't seen this before, Extra Life is a 25 hour gaming marathon. The goal is to raise money for children's hospitals via the Children's Miracle Network. I'm going to be doing a live stream starting at 11 PM (-6 GMT) on 11/1/13. So far I have Brian Ruben from Inside Gaming Daily, Andrew Kehr (who used to review games with me on No Hype Reviews) and George who was my co-host for the "Confessional" twitch stream. I'm working on getting a few other journalists I know (and a few I don't) to show up. I'm also reaching out to a few of my contacts on the development side to see if we can get something out of them. I'm hoping to keep it pretty entertaining so please, check out the stream via the aforementioned link.

Before the stream starts we are trying to raise as much money as possible. My goal this year is a thousand dollars. You can check out my Extra Life page for information on how to donate.

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I've been messing around with bitcoins a lot lately. I'm putting all four cores of my 570 into mining, playing blackjack with what it spits out, and stock piling that into real cash. I've been waiting for a real game to take advantage of it for a long while now.

Apparently there's a thread on the Steam forums where a bunch of people who knew nothing about bitcoins ranted about what a bad idea it'd be for Valve to accept the digital currency, but I have to differ. It would cost them a few hours of labor to implement, and then payments they get with that option would save them ~2.5% on transaction fees. It converts into meat-space dollars without much hassle. I think it'd be a mutual win for Workshop users.

There is a game out there called "Dragon's Tale" or something. It's essentially a casino with weird novelty games. While that's *an* approach, I'd like to see something closer to the MMO model.

Say the game costs ~$15USD worth of bitcoins a month to play. 25% of those bitcoins go into a kitty. Higher level the monsters have a bigger the chance to have to access that money. The amount of money the monster drops is also dependent on level. To pull some numbers out of my butt, say they have a .0025%/level chance to drop .000000001 btc/level. Odds of the game losing money is very slim, assuming the number of mobs killed per pay cycle is controlled.

Now, since vendor trash would have a real world value, you'd eliminate it. Anything a mob drops can be used for crafting. The auction house gets a standard 5% cut of all sales (additional revenue stream) and enterprising players can make real, bill paying money off of other players. I think the game's economy should be open - players can withdraw and deposit bitcoins from external sources at will.

One last twist: since MMOs aren't graphically intensive, the client could double as a mining client, and the game could double as a mining pool. This means players earn some bitcoins just from staying online. Albeit not as much as they might if they were running their PCs as dedicated miners. The bitcoins earned in this way would be stored in a separate wallet. The player could choose to pay for the game out of this wallet, deposit funds into their character's account, or transfer it into their external wallet to do whatever with. Traditionally mining pools also keep a cut for themselves, which is a third revenue stream.

The cool part about this is the game makes money while the user generates bitcoins, and the user will likely spend those bitcoins on the subscription or for in game items - creating more revenue. From the player perspective, they're playing for free (or at a discounted rate), or at least getting free loot. Since the game's economic focus will be on player-to-player trade, the game shouldn't feel too sleezey.

One thing I was worried about with this idea is rampant inflation. However, since the players are essentially using real money, they'd likely withdraw any significant piles of income to spend out side of the game (or to feed back in via subscription fees).

So we have a game that could theoretically be profitable. We have a model where some players could make money from the game, which if executed properly, would draw more players to the game. Now I just need a fun game. I have an idea for a 3 faction pvp based MMO with some novel mechanics, but I'm not a game designer. When it comes to balancing HP/Mana/damage/abilties/etc I'm hopelessly lost.

Since professional baseball money+a AAA game isn't enough to get an MMO out the door, I guess this business model is for someone with the fiscal means of shipping a game.


Quick Impressions of Walking Dead

I played 30-45 minutes of The Walking Dead last night. This was enough time to finish the first scene, with a suitable introduction to the main character. They’ve laid the foundation for an interesting story around the protagonist who may/may not have killed his wife before the game started. The writing is working out pretty well for me. The game feels highly cinematic, while it’s cell-shadedish textures looks a lot like a comic book. It’s a pretty interesting visual blend between the comic book and tv show. So far, the game isn’t really scary, but that isn’t the draw for this franchise.

The marketing around this game claims there are no quick time events. This is a goddamn lie. Killing zombies seems to be a process of mashing ‘q’ a few times, then ‘e.’ You know when to do this because of a prompt that appears on the screen. It looks like you want to be quick with your response, less you get zombified. If these aren’t QTEs, I don’t know what is. I didn’t play Jurassic Park, but I understand they’re trying to distance themselves from that game. So maybe this is a different style of QTE, I can’t honestly say. I took a look at a gameplay video for Jurassic Park, and I can say it looks really similar.

Assuming the $25 gets you all five episodes (roughly ten hours of game) and the quality of the game stays as high as this initial 30 minutes, The Walking Dead seems like a decent value proposition. I’m looking forward to finishing Episode One this week.


Saints Row 3, Skyrim, Star Wars: The Old Republic

So in addition to my full time job, my college education, my wife, d&d group, various social commitments, and new house, I have three huge games that demand my time.

My wife and I have been playing Star Wars: The Old Republic with a few friends. Getting two people to join us on any given night isn't difficult, and since we're all friends or friends of friends, we get along well. My only complaint here is that my wife has become addicted. She was playing until well after I fell asleep last night, and it's a bit bothersome to keep my characters paced with her. Especially since I have to have one character a few levels ahead, so I know what to expect when she starts asking questions about the next planet we visit.

I had a bug in Skyrim that prevented me from learning shouts. It was super frustrating, so I set the game down for several weeks. I loaded it back up and magically things worked again. I guess a patch came out that corrected the problem/messaged my save data into a workable state. I'm not really sure, but 'Meh, Bethesda.'

I've also put about two hours into Saints Row: The Third. I just finished the tutorial quest chain and I've unlocked three hideouts. One of my starting weapons? A guided missile system. That game is the most enjoyable set of nonsense I've ever seen. Listening to the Giant Bombcast spoiled some cool moments for me - those spoilers influenced my decision to buy the game, but I feel like I would have enjoyed those elements a lot more if I didn't know they were coming.

If someone could give me some more free time, I'd appreciate it. I'd say 150-200 hours should have me about caught up.


Looking for Pointers/Gamers in Europe

Last year I took a vacation to Brazil, when I came back I wrote this (sorry if the link doesn't work when you view this, I'm attempting to move my domain to a new registrar. The link will work again shortly.) post about gaming culture in the southern hemisphere. This year I'm doing an abbreviated tour of Europe. I'll be spending the 25th-27th in Amsterdam, then it's off to Rome, New Years in Budapest, then to <random places in Italy> with a break in Prague. The point of this post isn't to rub in my globe trotting escapades, but rather to find some Amsterdammers, Italianos, Praguians, or... uh.. um.. Budapestians(?) who'd be willing to share a glimpse of their gaming culture to a monolingual American.   
I'm interested in learning everything/anything about my counterparts overseas. Seriously, tell me anything. Here are some seed questions: What do you do for games in your country? Who're your favorite local developers? Can you give me a tour of your game development office? What does Assassin's Creed 2/Brotherhood feel like to you? What specific places in North Holland/Italy/Czech Republic/Hungary would make a great game setting? What arcades/game cafes/table-top gaming centers a cool in your area?
I hope to have my experiences written up when I return in mid January. So here's your chance to represent your niche's culture in a semi-pro-am blog post that literally tens of people will read!


Hello World.

I used to run a stand alone gaming blog, and I really enjoyed it. Writing something about an interesting topic every day was a ton of fun. I got pretty decent; my cross posts to BitMob were featured a few weeks in a row. Eventually the real world got in the way of things. I lost the time and financing required to play and review a game a week, and I was never very interested in reading video game news. As a result I stopped making regular posts, which is immediate death to any website. Still, I enjoy writing about games, I just lack a venue to do it. Well, this GiantBomb blog exists, so I may as well use it. 
Right now I'm playing an odd potpourri of games. My wife was excited for Fable 3, so we picked that up. I didn't have a game to play with an old friend, so I bought both of us a copy of Dead Rising 2 (pc) for his birthday. My friends at work are playing Battlefield: Bad Company 2 (pc) and Civ5. I started Fallout: New Vegas (pc), since it came with the Bethesda pack sale on Steam last summer. I nabbed Minecraft last month. I'm also trying to finish the last game I bought to review for my site, Assassin's Creed 2.  
This mishmash of game styles is something I never would have experienced while I was reviewing a game a week. It was simply impossible to play more than one or two games in my free time with a weekly deadline. As a result I think I lost sight of something very important about video games: diversity. One night, I may be packing up my PC to play BFBC2 and get wasted with friends at a LAN party. The next I might be alone, building a unique world that only I will see. Maybe I hop on Steam to pick off zombies while bullshitting with an old friend. Maybe I experience a "unique" story, one that's likely to be different from anyone else I know. Or maybe the story isn't all that unique, and my friends and I can chat about the story around the proverbial water cooler at work. Nearly any type of entertainment experience I want to have can be found in a video game. I'm not sure I could have said that ten years ago; and that's pretty damn cool.