What I think the "Best World" category should actually mean

I wrote this as a post in reply to the video for the Best World category, but I think it's long enough to justify a blog post:

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This category top to bottom should have been "Best World Building." World building is not just environmental story telling. That is one tiny aspect of it. It's also character designs, art direction, model design, weapon design, ambient dialog between characters that you walk by, things that appear in the skybox far away that you'll never be able to actually interact with, vehicle design even in a game that has no driving mechanics. It's the things that make the world seem like a real and believable and cohesive world. A world where you could imagine another author completely independent from the game makers writing a novel or comic book or making a TV show or movie.

Think about StarCraft II. There are so many tiny details in every model for every unit and building. Every part of the unit and building implies an actual mechanical function that might not even be expressed in the gameplay or mechanics of the unit. They tried to make everything seem like a real thing that really existed in their comic book world and served a purpose.

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Think about Overwatch. The weapon designs, the character designs, the level designs, the random dialog the characters speak to each other at the start of the match. Even if they had never made a single outside piece of fiction for that game, a lot is implied about the world just through those things. Think about the Numbani map and the Oasis map, and what they imply about Nigeria and Iraq in that future world they've created. That it's a fundamentally optimistic view of the future. Think about Volskaya and Eichenwalde. How they show how the war with the omnics shaped those parts of the world. The game literally doesn't even have a story mode in the game, but there's so much richness to the universe they've created.

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Even Galaga has "world building." The hero ship looks white and sleek, like something humans would design to be fast and deadly. The enemies look alien, like insects, and move in weird patterns. There's an enemy ship that literally brain washes your ship and turns it against you. But you can destroy that enemy ship and free your comrade and fight by his side. This tells you something about the world of Galaga through the art direction and gameplay. In the way things animate and move. And at no point does Galaga have a section where you walk around on a submarine reading newspaper clippings and talking to NPCs.

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That's world building. That's how a "story" is separate from the "world." Environmental story telling and level design are a tiny tiny piece of world building. When you pick up the Nail Gun or the Lightning Gun, think about what just the name of those items implies. Brutal, deadly, otherworldly. Just the names of those guns informs so much about the "world" of Quake, and that's before you even launch the game or see the levels. You can look at the models for the Shambler and the Vore in a vacuum and get a good sense of what that game is about, what its world involves.

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Once you establish that, then you can say "I thought the gameplay or the level design actively took me out of the experience of seeing the world, so I don't think this game wins this category." But to say "this game didn't have a section of the game where I could walk around quietly and look at shit" has nothing to do with whether it has good world building or not, because you can make very good arguments for good world building in fast paced action games that are literally designed such that if you stand still to look at the environment you'll die. That in and of itself can inform part of the world building, if it's done well: "This world is extremely dangerous and never gives you a chance to stop and take a breath." Yes, even game mechanics can inform world building. Geralt having to meditate and drink potions. The powers and abilities your party members get in Mass Effect.

That's what "Best World" should have been about. A showcase of which world seemed the most like a real place. Like somewhere that existed outside of the game's main story. A cohesive place, where every item in it seemed like it belonged in that world. And then the winner would be tempered by which game had the best execution in expressing that world, not JUST via environments but via character interactions, art direction, character and item design, how that world was delivered to the player and whether it was effective (e.g. natural feeling environmental story telling vs. just picking up dozens of audio logs).

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Why Clueless Gamer Being Paid For Isn't a Problem

I am specifically referring to this article by recode.net.

To begin with, this isn't news. If you were actually paying attention, he never gave any game a real review score. In fact he goes out of his way to specifically make nonsensical and arbitrary fake review scores to point out that he is not giving review scores. This is a hint that they're paid spots. I realize even if they weren't paid spots he'd probably still do this for the comedic effect, but it also means he can't be accused of taking money to give a game a good score because he's not technically giving a game any score at all. He also was looking at a lot of games before they came out. That's a pretty obvious tell that the spots were paid for. It's unlikely a company would give him an early copy of the game in the hopes that he might maybe make a bit out of it. But if they're paying him for an ad spot, they can be certain he'll make a bit out of their pre-release game. And finally, he has literally stated in interviews that they were paid spots. As has been added to the end of the article in an edit, Conan specifically mentioned it in the interview with Anderson Cooper. And at the time I watched this interview, I already felt like it wasn't news. I thought it was because Conan had mentioned it in another interview, but maybe it's just because it felt so obvious to me.

So in addition to this not really being news, there's also the aspect that this doesn't matter. Conan has never presented these bits as real reviews, and even a cursory glance makes it obvious they're not real reviews. If it wasn't obvious from just watching the video, he lampshades it at the end by giving them fake, nonsensical scores. As they are not real reviews, but comedy bits, it's not relevant whether or not they are paid to play the game or not. Just from watching the bits, you can tell that anyone actually interested in video games would be unlikely to base any purchasing decisions based on Conan's "reviews."

There is no conflict of interest, and there is no attempt to actually hide that some of them are paid spots. You can tell from the article that, when asked, they just straight up said some were paid spots. Also, the requirement to identify sponsorship only applies to actual endorsements or reviews, not paid comedy bits that use the video review format as a source of material. Conan makes fun of products on his show all the time. I have no doubt that some of those bits are based around paid advertising, but they don't disclose which ones are paid in the credits for those bits, either. Because they don't have to because a comedy sketch featuring a product is not the same as a review or endorsement.

The entire framing of the Recode.net article just seems ridiculous to me. They seem to be implying that something secret and insidious is going on. But to me, anyone who isn't already aware of this kind of advertising in modern TV shows is just ignorant. Just because Conan happened upon a format for it that's super popular doesn't make it any different than lazy close up shots of cell phones in the show Heroes. It'd be one thing if the article was just informing people who might not be so savvy or aware, but to bring up possible FCC violations is just ridiculous and ignorant of the law. This article is clearly just click bait trying to stir up shit by creating controversy over something popular with gamers, where no controversy need exist.


A thought about Diablo 3 diffiulty levels

I had a thought about an alternative way to handle difficulty levels in Diablo III. One of the complaints I've heard about newcomers to the franchise -- and even a lot of people coming back from Diablo and Diablo II -- is that they have to play through the game three times before reaching the end game, and that at least two of those playthroughs are trivially simple. The monster power system helps with this a little bit, allowing you to at least blow through those early parts of the game faster if you have very good gear, but while it increases the HP and damage of monsters (and their XP reward), it doesn't increase their complexity. Normal mode monsters still only have one affix.

It's true that this game is basically about running the same content over and over, so I feel like the real issue to address is not necessarily having to run the same content over and over, but the lack of difficulty due to lower monster complexity at lower levels, rather than just the HP/damage. So what if you could choose any of the three initial difficulty levels when starting the game? If you're worried about new players getting themselves in trouble, force them to reach a certain level or story beat to unlock the higher difficulties initially, and then allow them to choose any difficulty at level 1 on subsequent characters.

Anyway, the way it would work is that when you start a game, you could choose between the Normal/Nightmare/Hell difficulties at any level without having to kill Diablo on the previous difficulty to unlock the next. The difficulty level would affect the complexity of the elite monsters encountered. Normal mode would have single-affix elites, Nightmare would have double-affix elites, and Hell would have 3-4 affix elites. Levels would no longer be directly tied to the difficulty selected. The monsters would scale down to your current level (or maybe +1 or +2 if you picked Nightmare or Hell respectively) up to a maximum. So if you started a Normal game, the monsters would scale to your level up until about level 20 or 25, and then they would stop scaling and stay at that level. Nightmare monsters would scale up to 45 or so. Hell monsters would scale up to 60. Monster Power would still work as it currently does. Inferno mode would still be exclusive to max level players and not be changed at all.

You'd still have to play through the game multiple times to reach max level, but your playthroughs could all potentially be interesting, which is important to making it feel less like a soulless grind. It also more elegantly allows for expansions to increase the max level, and allows you to insert chapters for expansions.

Anyway, just an idea I had that I needed to write down somewhere.

Edit: Yeah, higher difficulties would also have increase MF%/GF%/XP% or whatever incentives are necessary beyond just having a more interesting play experience.


Black Mesa vs. Half-life

Several months ago, I had the idea that I should start streaming or making video game related Youtube videos. I really like talking about video games and trying to explain them. Around the same time, the Black Mesa Half-life 2 mod was finally coming out after being worked on for the better part of 8 years. I figured I would strike while the iron was hot and try to get some attention by playing through the game and commenting on it while I played. I played a lot of Half-life when it originally came out. Like I had done for Quake, Doom, and Duke Nukem 3D before it, I downloaded a ton of mods and custom maps for Half-life. I had the first 1/3 of the game completely memorized, and had a pretty good idea of how the rest of it went. I knew what its strengths and weaknesses were. I could identify how future FPS games learned from Half-life: more atmosphere, more NPC interaction and dialog, cinematic scripted sequences without taking control of the player camera, and how to use level design to draw the player's attention to those scripted sequences naturally, and that jump puzzles in FPS games just do not belong.

I had been looking forward to Black Mesa for a while. Partially out of intellectual curiosity rather than a desire to actually play it. I hadn't really paid attention to a mod community in a few years. On the surface, it sounds like a pretty simple mod: just remake the existing Half-life content with Half-life 2 textures and models. All the game code for Half-life was already available in the mod SDK. Just take what was already there and implement it in Half-life 2. At some point, however, this mod project seemed to grow way beyond this simple scope and premise. They wanted to "re-imagine" the game and put their own stamp on it. It just kept getting pushed further and further back. This, I think, is the games ultimate folly. At some point along the way, it moved too far away from the original and lost what made that game fun.

As I played through Black Mesa while commenting on it, the times where I was impressed or surprised were increasingly replaced with times that I was frustrated or annoyed. It got to the point where I didn't play it for weeks because I felt like I had nothing new to say, and didn't think people would want to listen to me just complaining about the game. Eventually I stopped uploading new videos, even though I'd already recorded them. I did learn a lot about different recording software along the way, and the limits of my hardware and upload, and what makes for a boring or interesting gameplay video (hint: watching someone smash every crate and glass window in a game is not as fun as smashing every crate and glass window), so I'm still very glad I did it. Eventually, any time I opened Steam with the thought of playing it, I just played something else. When I loaded up the game last week to finally just finish it without bothering to record video or commentary, I hadn't played it in two months. I ended up beating it in about an hour. That's how close I was to the end when I finally gave up.

The main problem with the game is the difficulty of the human marine enemies and the helicopter enemy, but more generally, the game is just a lot harder than Half-life. There are a lot of other small flaws that are easy to overlook, especially when you realize this game was created by amateurs in their free time, but the difficulty one just seems ridiculous and out of place. I started the game on medium difficulty, rather than hard, because my main motivation for playing was just to see the level design and their take on an up-res'ed version of the Half-life world. I never had the slightest inkling that the game would be difficult. Other than one or two specific areas, Half-life was not difficult. Why would they change it?

It turns out they changed it a lot. For the non-human enemies, the changes seemed minor. Monsters had slightly shorter spin up time on their attacks. If you weren't already near a corner when a Vortigaunt spun up his lightning attack, it was going to hit you no matter what. This was not the case in Half-Life. Houndeyes went from being a monster that I never took damage from, and would use my crowbar to kill to conserve ammo in Half-life, to creatures to be feared that would damage me from seemingly impossible distances and through walls. The bullsquid ranged attack, which had been easy to dodge, now had a wide, arcing spray. Sure it looked cool, but it fundamentally changed the gameplay of that creature. Honestly, most of these specific changes were minor, and not really game breaking. You just took a little more damage than before. The biggest change is to the human grunts. They have way more hit points, and deal way more damage, on top of having more precise aim and better AI. An Easy difficulty Black Mesa human grunt is more difficult than a Hard difficulty Half-life human grunt. This is absolutely ridiculous.

When I first started fighting these enemies, I thought I had gone crazy and completely lost my ability to play video games somehow in the past 14 years. I went to the game's forums and sure enough, I was not alone. The response from the developers was something along the lines of: "well, we thought they were too easy, so we kept making them more difficult until we couldn't beat them anymore." This is not how you design a game or how you gauge difficulty in a game. When you're working on a game nearly every day for years, you learn every trick and every nook and cranny of the game. You've played that same area thousands of times, of course it's going to be easy for you. But the average player is only going to play through that area once. Maybe twice. They're not going to have memorized every script in the map and every spawn point. They're not going to learn ever nuance of the AI and how to beat it. And worst of all, they were supposed to be making a remake of Half-life. There has to be a bit of a sense of stewardship there and an understanding of the expectations of the audience. All the data they needed about how difficult their game should be was available to them in the original game. Even Half-life 2, which is somewhat more difficult than Half-life was, is not nearly as difficult as Black Mesa.

When I couldn't pass group of grunts marking the exit from Questionable Ethics to Surface Tension after over an hour of attempts, I finally gave up and turned the difficulty from Normal to Easy. My pride was wounded. I immediately turned it back to Normal after passing that roadblock, only to turn it back to easy at the end of Surface tension when I was completely unable to kill the helicopter boss, no matter how much I cheesed the fight.

This fight is probably the most insane example of how broken the difficulty of this game is. You're in a cave on the side of a cliff. The helicopter is looking into the cave. There are some small rock outcroppings that provide cover from the helicopter. The helicopter fires rockets and a relatively steady stream of bullets. The cooldown period between each volley from the helicopter is only a few seconds. Your rocket launcher can only hold 5 rockets plus one in the chamber. There is an infinite rocket ammo crate near the entrance of the cave, but the crate is not behind enough cover to keep you alive and the cooldown period between the helicopter's volleys is not long enough to reach the crate and get back into cover without dying. I tried for hours to finish this fight. At one point I loaded an earlier save and scoured the level for rocket ammo I could drop behind the safer rock outcropping. Because it's the Half-life 2 engine, you can "use" items to pick them up and carry them around and drop them places. I created as big a stack of health items and rockets as I could manage behind the safe rock cover, and fired every single rocket I had at the helicopter and it didn't die. I tried to run to the ammo crate and back to the safe spot, but didn't make it. Even the "safe" spot wasn't entirely safe, and there were times I would just take random splash damage from a volley of rockets. So I turned it down to Easy and killed it on the first try. There was no sense of pride or accomplishment. It was just depressing. It was not fair, and it was not fun.

Playing Black Mesa was making me actively question my enjoyment of Half-life, because I just could not remember for certain if the original game had been like this. I kept thinking I should play through these sections that were so frustrating and annoying and unfun in Black Mesa in Half-life to give myself some context, but I just didn't want to put the time in to do it. If this mod was made by people who claimed to love the original Half-life, and loved it so much that they would put all this time and effort into remaking it, and yet they managed to make something so unfair, and unfun, and unrewarding to play, then maybe my memories of Half-life were just rose colored glasses. Maybe I had cheated to pass some areas and simply forgotten or blocked it out of my mind.

So last weekend, after I finally resolved to finish Black Mesa (in grim silence), I also resolved that I should play through the original Half-life completely unmodified on Hard difficulty. I needed to recalibrate my baseline expectations. And you know what I learned? Half-life is still fucking awesome. Other than one or two very specific areas, both of which were at least manageable difficulty, the experience was fun and rewarding. It didn't feel frustrating or unfair. There were several times that I breezed through an area in Half-life on Hard that had been a nightmare on Normal in Black Mesa. I kept bringing down the console and typing "skill" to make sure I hadn't somehow accidentally changed the difficulty to Easy. Nope, still says "skill is 3." The encounter at the end of Questionable Ethics in Black Mesa doesn't even exist in Half-life, but the encounter with the helicopter does. Guess how many rockets it took to take ti down? Three. Three rockets. Not 10 or 15 or whatever. Three.

And there were some changes to Black Mesa that I hadn't even realized were changes until I went back to Half-life. For some reason in Black Mesa, they cut the maximum ammo capacity of nearly every weapon in half. Why? Why make this change? It seems completely arbitrary. And it seems like that's the takeaway from all of this. The changes in gameplay made in Black Mesa seem completely arbitrary and pointless. They make the game harder in a way that is not fun or challenging or rewarding, and actively take away from the enjoyment of the game, and just feel arbitrary. Change for the sake of change. Would it really have been so hard to try and loosely match the difficulty of the original game, and then add a fourth difficulty called "Hardcore" or "Ultra" or something?

Anyway, this is why my enthusiasm for this mod was tempered to begin with. I've seen these types of mod projects before. The mod author either gets screwed because they adhere to closely to the original game and get accused of being unoriginal or no one wants to play it because the gameplay feels outdated, or they try to update it and disappoint those who were just looking for a nostalgia trip. Usually when a mod gets pushed back as much as this one was, it just disappears into the ether. It's impressive that they were able to release anything at all, especially something with this many individual maps and at the level of complexity they did. And it is very successful at the nostalgia factor if all you do is look at the maps and models. It's only when you actually try to play it that it falls flat, caught between trying to be its own thing and adhering to the basic gameplay of the original. If you're curious about Black Mesa, my recommendation is to just play it on easy to check out the levels. Maybe even turn on some cheats. But if you have never played Half-life before, this is not the way to go. Play the original.


Black Mesa (Source enginge mod) gameplay video with commentary

Black Mesa is a Source engine mod that's a recreation of Half-Life 1 using slightly-better-than Half-Life 2 graphics. It was in the works for nearly 8 years. It got to the point where I was super pessimistic about what the result was going to be. I decided to record my playthrough of the game, giving commentary along the way not just about the mod and what's changed from the original Half-Life 1, but also my thoughts on Half-Life, first person shooters, "tribute" mods, and game design in general. I'm also using it to experiment a little with recording techniques and content production styles. The first video is about 2 hrs long and poor video quality because I did it as a live Twitch stream using the free version of XSplit, the same as my earlier DotA 2 video. Since then I've switch to the free, open source FFSplit and decided to break the videos up into 20 minute chunks so they'd be easier to watch.

So without further introduction, here's the Youtube playlist. Hope someone likes it. The first video is below.