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Why Alpha Centauri was a classic game and Beyond Earth was not

How to Save BE/Why AC works and BE does not

BE could have been wonderful. Sid Meir triumphantly throwing off the shackles of history and returning to space and philosophy. Instead it showed how they learned all the wrong lessons from the success and overall adoration of Alpha Centauri, how they do not understand science fiction, and how much of the greatness of Alpha Centauri came not from Sid Meir but from Brian Reynolds.

In an interview talking about starships Sid Meir said something along the lines of – its science fiction the story doesn’t matter. Like many people I only stopped slamming my head against the wall recently. Even the most tolerant interpretation of this comment is ridiculous. The friendliest interpretation to Sid is that he was trying to say “its science fiction there are no limits to the story you can write”. This conflates science fiction and fantasy. Even the softest science fiction (see star wars) tries to have some logical scientific explanation for its oddities. Yes, writing science fiction is freeing because you can ask “what if” but the best science fiction stories are defined by the limitations they impose on themselves.

The other interpretation “its science fiction the story doesn’t matter just write anything” (which given BE and starships I think may be what he believes) is so ridiculous that it doesn’t even need rebutting.

I have 313 hours in BE – and I cannot name any of the BE leaders and none of them are distinct characters. AC is completely different.

Let’s look at two of the AC factions as examples. Miriam is a complete stereotypical religious fundamentalist. She has all and the only answers and everyone else needs to serve her. That bible thumping grandpa you likely have if you live in the US – turn him up to 11. Instantly interesting and instantly memorable. Especially when BE was published as the US was arguably in the thrall of the Christian Right at the time. Still leaves empty spaces for the player to fill (does she really believe what she spouts or is she just using it for power, what level of Christian charity does she practice) but you have tools to work with.

Similarly Morgan is an extreme American Libertarian Capitalist. Instantly you have a character sketch but details are left for you to fill in. Does he believe in giving to charity on a personal just not governmental level, or is he the worst kind of Gilded Age Robber Baron who would buy the children of poor people as sex slaves? You could find both and every version in between in the stories written on the internet using AC games or characters. I have yet to see a good BE story.

All of the above focuses on story and character, but this is because to me this is where BE fails to capture the spirit of AC the most. It is also what made AC such a revelation and still the best Civ version. A strategy game with RPG level story and characters that actually promoted thought. But BE could also learn from AC’s mechanics. The best part of BE’s gameplay mechanics though, started with story.

As in all Civilization games, government is a major issue. You can be communist, democratic, capitalist, or green. Harkening back to Civ 2 (and somewhat like civ VI) though, rather than just consisting of various bonuses each form comes with its own negatives. Want to be green? Sure the planet will like you more and aliens will attack less, but your growth and industry will be limited. Oh wait you are playing as Morgan – will then you can’t choose green.

Think about that – the faction you choose limits the gameplay choices you can make in game. Playing Didere , who can never be capitalist, vs playing Morgan is almost like playing a completely different game. In the same token, playing Miriam who for the first 100 turns or so generates no science (that’s right zero science) vs. playing Zarakov whose almost entire mission is to amass science is like playing two different games.

Choosing one affinity in BE vs another not only changes nothing narratively it also changes nothing mechanically. They tried with the various bonuses each faction gets but it just didn’t work. Even on the highest difficulty as a harmony player, not only did I not have to make fungus near where I want to invade and then invade with my fungus loving troops it wasn’t really possible to do so. The techs that gave the ability to use satellites gave no affinity or at least not harmony affinity. As well, especially on the higher levels, pursuing techs that do not give affinity is a way to die since ALL of your unit advances are tied to affinity. The wonderful tech web quickly becomes linear again as most paths quickly become nonviable.

Let’s talk more about the affinities. Really, they each only feel like coats of paint. My leader avatar changing as my affinity increases sounded cool but it wasn’t taken nearly far enough. If I go technocracy I am supposedly becoming a computer but never does my leader avatar become really more computer like – just a human in a yellow robe. As I move up, I should be replacing my limbs with computer parts and eventually become a cyborg and then completely bodiless. Represent me as ones and zeros or the 2001 obelisk. I should certainly no longer be human. The same is true for harmony. I should gradually become more alien eventually becoming a bug with a human face and then a full on alien bug. Think the human sandworm in the later Dune novels. ONLY the purity affinity should have stayed recognizably human.

The affinities also should have had drawbacks as well as bonuses. ESPECIALLY when the hybrid affinities become mixed in. Some hybrid affinities make sense. Purity technocracy can be interpreted as incorporating computer parts into human bodies. But even here you go too far down technocracy purity no longer works. Human bodies are limiting, true freedom is in being pure conscious ghost in the shell code. This is how a high technocracy society would function. To continue using the hybrid units your affinities would need somewhat to stay in balance. Get two out of balance and your society is making the choice not to use the other affinities.

The last thing I will discuss is the lack of wonder movies. One of the best story hooks in AC was the quotes for the technologies, given they either came from philosophy greats of humanities’ past or faction leaders. Each quote from a faction leader fitting with the faction leader’s basic character and using that faction leaders voice actor. Even better than this though were the wonder movies. Each movie told a tiny story that fit not only with the faction leader but also helped flesh out the world. Watch the self aware colony video or the mind twister video and tell me these don’t add immeasurably to the sense of the games world.

If I wanted a completely abstracted mathematical strategy game I would play chess, go, or Sudoku. What firaxis increasingly seems to think of as window dressing is really an important part of the game experience.

Lal, Yang, Miriam, Morgan, Santiago, Zakharov, Dierdre; the core faction leaders in Alpha Centauri and names I can rattle off with very little prompting even though it has been years since I have played the game. If you have every played Alpha Centauri, or even heard of it, you can probably do the same and ,more importantly, have some idea of who each of these people are.


Black Desert Online - thoughts in progress, wow was Jeff wrong

So Black Desert Online does itself no favors with its opening. Like in the quick look this is silly and in trying to be stylish ends up being just weird. Someone needs to explain to English translators that if you want to say THE ancient civilization just say the ancients or better yet give the civilization a name. In no world was there ever really just one ancient civilization. Game starts with what could have been a tired trope. Amnesia. It works it ok though as it seems to connect to the people from the destroyed civilization from the past. The whole possession by the black energy ball is also cool just as it was in the quick look...I might actually be a bad guy! Combat is interesting and fun right mix of action and power based for me. Better than Secret worlds not as hectic and crazy as Terra's. When the game opened up though was when I started to talk to NPCs.

Yes I know that sounds crazy....but almost EVERY npc in the game seems to have a story. But it is a story you don't get right away. They want to know about certain things, other npc's, various creatures. How do you get this information you ask? You EXPLORE. Some of the most fun I had early was literally wandering around the first town, finding other NPCs so I could then go back to the original npc and play an actual interesting conversation minigame (Need to put a picture in review how would I go about this?). Each NPC had an interest level about other NPCs or other topics. Talking to them about certain topics correctly increases amity how much they like you. Get them to like you enough they give you quests, information, or sell you special things. Want to help the NPC? Prove to them you can be relied on - become a friend then they may ask. For me this really increases immersion, I mean would you ask a random person on the street for help? Can be as simple as finding a lost cat for a child and getting names of other kitties in the city but is small stories that actually feel like STORIES not just things to do while you grind up to a high enough level to do the main story.

They also have an interesting answer to the not wanting to read story tool tips. There is a lot of movement and fast travel is slow and comes late (the donkey you get is not much faster than walking and a horse seems to be hard to get) but you can set a destination and you autowalk there - this gives you time to read the story tidbits watch the explanation videos (which do need to be bigger) and more importantly do the crafting.

The crafting/worker system is the most ornate I have seen in any game. It ties into the housing system nicely as well. The crafting is incredibly deep. You can gather/mine/pick/butcher/skin/chop (deep breath) crops, wild plants, stone/ore, trees, and any animal you kill in the game. So as you wander around you will end up with (deeper breath) stone, iron ore, copper ore, various gems, potatoes, corn, moss, weeds, bear meat, fox meat, weasel meat, bear skins, fox skins, wood, ash logs, pin logs, maple sap, fir sap, etc. You can also fish so add twenty different types of fish to the other list. All of these can then be processed into different things. Meat can be cooked or dried. Ore can be smelted, food can be cooked, dried, or mixed. Potatoes can be grinded into flour and then the flour mixed with water to make dough. Logs when processed into planks can be used to built furniture. Not sure what skins can be made into, have barely touched cooking, and have yet to touch alchemy. The amount of things you can make seem endless. Vinny - this is the stardew valley the MMO with story and action combat.

Finally there is a worker system where you can hire NPCs to do crafting, and gathering for you. Expensive but as I sit here typing this I have an NPC gathering potatoes in the game. It seems like you could set up an industrial empire with gathering, crafting, and trading that would run entirely without you. The possibilities are amazing.

So much more than the quick look showed. Interesting overall story, great little inside stories with cool NPCs that feel like real people, cool action combat, and an incredibly deep crafting system.

Some graphical anomalies for me especially when loading in but I have an older computer and can run on medium at the highest.

More to come as I put in more hours. Only have 15 in the game now. Seems to be some guild combat/war/land take over stuff that I have no idea how it works. I expect it is great.

4/12/16 Additions - The grind and bugs appear! Is the bloom off this rose?

So I can't find a way to create a new blog post in a blog series so just editing the old one (if there is a way to add a new blog post in a series someone do let me know)

Finished up my week trial with over 100 hours in the game and likely only 1/10 through what I could do in it. Needless to say the game is large. This is a good and a bad thing. It is certainly an open world game and as no one has found a way really to do an open world game especially an MMO with "life" elements without a grind the grind is certainly here. This is also an Asian game (if you couldn't tell from the screenshots you've seen and the cute young looking tamer class - which is what I played) so grind. It is remedied here though in some pretty important ways. First though there is certainly combat grinding (I hate a quest to kill 100 yes 100 goblins the other day) the combat is so interesting that it doesn't feel like a grind. As mentioned I played the tamer class (don't look at me like that) and combat was all about positioning, moving in quickly striking and getting away. Think rouge in D and D. I could use a task bar to activate skills but I hardly ever did. Mouse and keyboard controls to fly in do a circle kick (like something out of a kung foo movie) then fly back, kick them until they turn around backwards then hit them in the back while stepping to the side to avoid there counter attack. Through in for variety a series of kicks that juggles them into the air leaves them stunned on the ground ready for "down" attacks. If this all sounds complicated, and fun, that is because it is. Made even better as enemies attacks and weaknesses are varied. Going against a big goblin twice your size? Likely not going to be able to kick him in the air. Going against a goblin thrower? Ranged might not work as well. And this is only really the second enemy type I fought (the earlier being imps). Given this introduction I would be very surprised if things didn't get much more complicated quickly. Like mentioned before the crafting can be done by workers and fishing can be done totally offline (though online seems to give better results). Trading however you have to buy the materials and then carry them to another location. This is your fantasy trucking. Not for me but some seem to enjoy it. You move incredibly slowly even on a donkey (you can't get a horse until around level 20 and wagons much later). The mark a destination point and have the game move you Jeff mocked is made for this mode. Minimize the game and go do something else. Productivity killer for me so I didn't do it but the option is there.

Also ran into some bugs with the conversation system where it seemed like I had enough amity to do something but it wouldn't let me, and the worker system where I couldn't work from a node and I wasn't sure why. Systems are complicated enough that these might not have been bugs but something I was missing. Asking on forums didn't seem to give an easy answer though.

Dived more into cooking and it is also cool - unforgiving on recipes and the recipes really are not discoverable by experimentation which is a shame.

The life portion is definitely an open world game and suffers from the open world game MMO issue of seeming like work pretty quickly, just like eve and other open world MMO's, but given the great story and interesting quest and overall interesting systems. I think I will be back. So you see a cute tamer fishing or cooking in a purple outfit say hello - just try not to stare though I know the cuteness will make that hard.

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Leave you with a pic of your spirit guide. Remember how I said you may not be the hero in this games story?

And after you have done some things for him he "evolves"

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replaying phantasy star series - games have gotten easier/better - get off my lawn

So I have started (over a long period now) replaying the phantasy star games. I am going to record thoughts here as I do so. This will likely be a long process and there will be long stretches where things are not posted as I replay the games seldom (for reasons that will become obvious) but I hope to play through at least 2 and 3. Originally doing this because 3 sounded interesting but I never played it originally. Started 2 as a kid on the Genesis never finished it and played through 4.

So as a child I went from an intelevision to a genesis console and then discovered computer games and so never looked back. On the genesis the games I always loved where the RPG like games and strategy games that had a rpg element. Populous, shining in the light, and Phantasy Star. The intelevision never had rpgs really or strategy games. Phantasy star 2 I played until I got to a point where it seemed I couldn't get any further and I was never able to figure out why. I learned later that I had misused an item and that I would have had to restart (as the item didn't reappear) and correctly use the item to advance. Not sure how I felt when I first discovered this but I never felt like I needed to go back and replay the game that was for sure. I was one of the crazy people who bought a playstation portable when they came out and I picked up a set of genesis games. The phantasy star games where included so I decided to replay them. One note the first part is a lot of complaining. There are a lot of things about this that wasn't fun, but overall it has been a fun experience the writing in this game is incredible and not done nearly as well in many games today. I go into this more in the second section. Not exactly sure if I am going to edit this post or put up new posts as I continue so lets sub title here.

Annoying things about old games

Wow have things changed. I had forgotten so much about old JRPG's and some of there annoyances. In phantasy star 2 you start off weak. I don't mean don't travel to far weak I mean don't step outside the city without a full set of potions weak and even with expect to kill only 1 thing before refilling weak. I wanted to replay this without using a guide since I remembered the item I misused as a child and how to use it correctly (yes I know I need to learn how to let go) but I checked a couple to make sure I hadn't missed something. Nope all of them say circle around the city with a full set of potions and attack things not for one level not two but around five. This translates to about ten to fifteen minutes of simple menu based fighting. As a child I remember the fighting being cool but early going it seemed pretty bland. As I went up in level got spells which was nice but this lead to another annoying thing, looking at the spells it didn't tell me what they did. I don't mean it said it damaged enemies but didn't tell me how much, it didn't say if it healed, if it damaged enemies or if it took me out of a dungeon or warped me to a city. This is not as big a deal as other things but still made deciding strategy a little bit challenging, cast the spell see what it does and then either remember or write it down. Leaving the game (and the game is loooong so you will eventually leave it and come back at some point) you either have to still have all the old stuff you wrote down or relearn it. There is a thrill of discovery here but even as a kid I didn't have this much time I mean between school, swimming, reading and other games. Also doesn't seem really to be a way to figure out where you left off if you leave and come back. You can go back to the government building in the main city and get an idea but this is very general. For example at one point you are attempting to find out what is going on at a mother brain. Of course none of them actually know where the mother brain is. The mother brain is underwater but no one really tells you this as you wander around and talk to people. In one city someone does say they are looking for a specific plant to make a gum that would allow people to breath underwater. This seems like a side quest but once you find the gum there is one place in the water that looks slightly differently (again no one tells you about this you just wander around and find it) where if you use the gum you find an underwater dungeon. If you had played up to finding the gum left for several days and come back figuring out where you were would be very difficult. Especially since the person you find the plant for after you give it to him and he gives you the gum, if you come back acts like you still haven't found it. As another example, early on when you wander around and talk to people one person randomly in a town talks about the town having a tower that people think is the center of controling something. To find it, you need to wander around the outside of the town (which usualy takes you out of the town map to the world map) in a particular place where you move to a second town map (on[y place this happens so far for me) where there are three towers. At the time you can't do anything with these. Several hours of gameplay time later (and possibly days and weeks of real life time later) you need to find a way into dams. Now because you have directly interfered with the plans of mother brain all the enemies are now robots (making one particular party member useful as his spells effect robots only and other useless as they affect monsters. This is cool and something more games should do) and all the people talk about everywhere is how you are being chased by robots for interfering with mother brain. So I hope you found the tower before, wrote down what the random NPC said about it, as now when you need it, they don't talk about it. As it was a week or more of real time for me between when I found this tower originally and when I needed it I actually had to use a guide to figure out what the heck I was doing. Before the internet at 13 I expect I wouldn't have gotten past this part. All of this of course would have meant I would have gotten past the misuse of dynamite. In one dungeon you find dynamite. Before this the only things you have found in chests in games were usable items, or equipment weapons or armor. Nothing about this item seems to be different, it is in your inventory and you can use it like any other. What the game doesn't tell you is that the ONLY way you can advance is to use the dynamite to open the entrance to your next dungeon. If you use it as a weapon in one of the MANY random battles that if you haven't wandered around to get money to level up your equipment are incredibly difficult you can not advance. Your only choice is to restart either from a save or the beginning of the game. I am not sure even 25 years ago in Japan (a culture that values what I would call drudge repetitive work much more than the west) this could be seen as fun.

Why this game overall is still fun

So lots about this doesn't hold up. Much however does. As I mentioned above the different characters being useful at different times is awesome and figuring out who to use and how to use them can be fun. The combat is also challenging so when to use spells and how to use them is actually challenging. Outside of persona games I haven't had this much fun in a simple dungeon crawl or combat. Combat is all turn based so you have the time to think and plan. I like this, your mileage may vary of course. Another game mechanic that is enjoyable is the lack of dungeon maps. I know what you might be thinking, above I was complaining about the lack of quality of life stuff and now here I am saying the lack of one is a good thing? I know and I am potentially contradicting myself but the line between annoying difficulty and fun challenge can be fine. Since there is no dungeon map all the dungeons become a maze. They start off simple but get progressively more difficult. As they are multilevel and you see things from a top down perspective often you will go up a level see somewhere you want to get to but not be able to get to it. Slowly you build up either a mental map or a drawn one of the space and you figure out where to go. The game also slowly teaches you mechanics. Many of the dungeons have holes that you can fall through. Falling through doesn't kill you just takes you down a level. Eventually you will fall through one of them and find this out. Haven't gotten to a place where you need to fall through one yet, but I expect there will be a location you can only reach by falling through a hole on a higher level. This slow difficulty spike and fun learning is in start contrast to the use this exactly the right way or reboot the game described above.

None of this though is the real draw, at least for me, what makes this game really fun is the writing. Writing that is very Japanese in theme and honestly better than a lot of writing in games today. It is somewhat generic JRPG or RPG writing you are out to save the world but unlike many where you are a chosen one, here you are simply a government employee who wants to save people. In fact at one point your "boss" tells you not to risk yourself that you are nothing but a normal person, but you go out anyway because it is the right thing to do. Normal people becoming extraordinary through their actions is not something we see in games much anymore. As well, especially when the limits of the technology are taken into consideration, characters have real character and are moving. One of the first things you do is deal with some bandits at a bridge. Rather than this simply being a find the bandits and kill them mission you end up first going to a separate village finding out that the bandit leader had to turn to banditry to raise a ransom for his kidnapped daughter after the town he lived in was destroyed by bandits that kidnapped his daughter. You go into the bandits hideout to find the bandits already dead killed by biomonsters (this is the connection to the overall story as the biomonsters are what you are investigating as a government employee) here you find some dynamite that you use to open a tower where the bandits daughter is being held. Once you rescue the daughter (who hasn't been killed by biomonsters though this isn't explained) to keep her safe from people that have come to hate her bandit father you put a veil over her head. Upon you taking her to her father she runs up to him quickly forgetting her veil, her father doesn't recognize her demands all her money and when she refuses kills her. As she falls dead she realizes her father had become a true criminal and might not have been saveable. Distraught over either what he has done or how much of a criminal he has become (left ambiguous in the best way) her father kills himself. What could have been a simple and overused side quest (kill bandits to advance) becomes a tiny self contained but connected story. It is made clear the bandits were before simple farmers that turned to banditry after the biomonsters appeared. The world deepens and the true chaos becomes apparent. A little thought brings up moral questions that are not simple as well. The father was simply trying to save his daughter, the bandits to survive. What seemed black and white becomes grey. Games that do this well exist now (Witcher) but they are still rare. The level of writing continues this well. What they do with your first party member and the first boss after 20+ hours of gameplay and interactions that make the party member a character is great. Reminescent of things that happen in Final Fantasy but better. (no I won't spoil it here). Where I am at right now you have also angered the super computer that seems to be controlling the planet. So though you are trying to save people by opening dams and preventing flooding the planetary government is now against you and all the enemies have changed to robots. This level of you actually having an effect on the world and the world and the story reacting to your actions, again especially when you remember the technology of the time, is amazing and something developers today should learn from.