Author Archives: michaeltorr

A Rite of Mastery

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Battlerite (pictured above) is a team based multiplayer action game, which focuses on 2v2 and 3v3 battles in small arenas. Like MOBAs and other multiplayer focused games, the difficulty comes from individual player’s skills and how they face off against each other and work together. But instead of talking about these person-to-person difficulty changes, a main concept of Battlerite is being able to use each character’s abilities successfully.

In Battlerite each character has a basic attack ability (M1) 5 special abilities (M2, Space, Q, E, and R) an ultimate ability (F) and two EX abilities (shift+specific ability key) in their arsenal. Being able to efficiently use each of these abilities determines how well you can perform and are in a way the difficulty bar that players must overcome.

Mastering a character that you want to play is the first difficulty hurdle, as recklessly picking a champion and expecting to immediately have success is a rookie mistake and can quickly turn into a Button Mashing scenario, where the player expects wonderful things to happen if every button is pressed. In Battlerite this is far from the fact and players must know optimal situations to use an ability and not be left helpless when an ability is on cooldown. Additionally understanding the best approach to dealing damage or assisting teammates in a given situation is fundamentally important. So after practicing and fully understanding the ins and outs of a specific character, one would think they are ready to get out into the arena and to start battling players right? Wrong.

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While this would work if there was only one existing character, Battlerite contains a current roster of 17 characters, which will continue to expand, each with their own set of different abilities and strategies they use. And each person playing them will (more than likely) understand how to play them and to a basic level understand the best way to play them. This adds another level of difficulty to the game, in which not only do you have to understand the character you have chosen, it is equally important to understand the opposition’s characters. What is their primary role? Are they a support, melee, or ranged? Do they have gap-closers or escapes? What are their defensive abilities? What abilities do they have that I should be careful about avoiding?

Understanding the opposition is important but just as equally important is understanding your teammates’ champions. Understanding their own roles and what they want to do against your opponents so you can change your own strategy accordingly. All these are paramount for succeeding in Battlerite and define its difficulty for players. Even if you have superb mastery over the character you are playing and understand them to a T, this whole advantage disappears if you have no idea what your teammates and enemies can do.

-Michael

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Mastering The Meta

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While difficulty inĀ  competitive multiplayer games is almost entirely based off each player’s relative skill and how they play against each other, there still is a slight nuance in difficulty that the developer has a hand in influencing for these games. In most cases of MOBAs (multiplayer online battle arena), the entire infrastructure is based on a team based game where players battle against each other in an attempt to destroy the enemy’s base. This involves a plethora of different characters that players can choose to control for each game, each controlling radically differently from the next with there own set of goals.

While players are free to choose their favorite champion and have fun playing them, there is often a metagame that determines effective strategies within the game such as that of League of Legends. The metagame, or meta for short, is often built around a set of strategies and a select few characters within the game that are determined optimal for the current state of the game. These are often seen as the best characters to play as, to a degree that they over perform and overshadow other characters. While largely the meta is influenced by the player base and in a game like League of Legends the meta is often dictated by the upper echelon of players in the professional esports scene, the developers, in this case Riot Games, have a very large acting say in what the game’s current meta is.

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Most developers, including Riot Games, shake up and alter this game within the game by periodically updating and changing the game through patches. These patches will often buff champions who are deemed weak by Riot, and nerf champions who are too strong. Although often times Riot will also tweak certain champions to try and slightly alter them, sometimes resulting in a champion who all of a sudden receives tweaks that make them incredibly strong. This along with the very infrequent changes to items that can be bought, alter the state of the metagame and determine what are best picks. For example in one of the most recent patches, 6.18 (the world championship patch) they made slight changes to the game with the goal of not shaking up the foundation weeks before a major tournament. As a result the meta that had developed over the past few patches stayed, resulting in a handful of champions being determined optimal for each position. Anything outside of these 3-5 champions per role are considered risky picks that can easily flop miserably.

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In a large part the meta influences difficulty on the player, as they may struggle with not being able to play or simply not being comfortable on the strong champions, requiring them to overcome a learning curve and engage in a matchup that is working against them. In a way difficulty in these multiplayer focused games comes directly from how well the player can mold and adapt themselves to fit the metagame, and their inability to do so makes the game that much more difficult for them.

-Michael

A Fight Between You and the Gimmick

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Gimmicks aren’t necessarily a bad thing when it comes to video games. In fact gimmicks are often integral and can provide a very much needed change of pace for the player by providing a much different and interesting approach to things that normally come out of the game. Simply enough gimmicks have to be chosen wisely and implemented even more skillfully, otherwise they can break the pace of a game or at worse be an agitating annoyance for players.

Most cases gimmicks are roundabout ways that break away from the status quo the game establishes. For example the Yhorm The Giant boss fight in Dark Souls is a gimmick fight. While ordinarily, Dark Souls requires the player to carefully choose when to strike darting in and out of combat, perfectly timing switching from offense to defense. The Yhorm boss fight is an entirely different approach which casts aside pretty much all the difficulty of combat away. After the player successfully realizes that standard weapons have little to no effect on the boss, and they figure out that a conveniently placed weapon at the back of the room is the only real way to deal damage, the fight becomes trivial, so much so that its quite easy to beat the boss without taking damage, or even letting him getting an attack in at all.

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This behavior isn’t just limited to bosses, but can be found in several games where entire levels are dedicated to a gimmick. These are quite finicky as most platformers often employ gimmick levels that are a fun and engaging change of pace. Alternatively one can be stuck with a gimmick level which is amusing at first, but quickly takes a turn for the tedious. For example Dragon Age: Origins has a section in the middle of escalating a mage tower, where the player and his party is transported to a dream world known as the Fade. The Fade section of Dragon Age: Origins has gained a reputation among its fanbase as being an extremely tedious and annoying level, so annoying, that a user created a mod for the game which allowed players to skip the section entirely.

The section is entirely based around solving puzzles and navigating combat by using different unique forms for different situations. Its interesting and fun for the first few minutes, but as the exploration continues and combat continues, the player just wishes they could go back to normal gameplay and be rid of the shapeshifting gimmick.

While gimmicks can often be used for fun, they are just as commonly overused and just not put into effect in a fun and enjoyable way for the user. More often than not gimmicks are tedious and a headache for the player that breaks the flow of a game, where a break is not even necessary.

-Michael

Trial of Hope and Despair

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Difficulty in Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair doesn’t become a factor in the game’s run until you reach the trial phase of each murder mystery. Before that the game plays out entirely same regardless of the difficulty the player selects. The calm before the storm plays out exactly the same, the murder discovery, and the search for clues all play out the same regardless of your selected difficulty.

But when all the clues have been investigated and the player funnels in with the rest of the characters to begin the trial, is when the difficulty begins to shape the adventure for you. While not entirely present in the game’s first chapter, as it plays out roughly the same regardless of difficulty because of its role as introduction to trial mechanics, there are still some nuanced variation based on difficulty selected.

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Using “Kind” difficulty as a baseline, Danganronpa’s normal mode, the game’s logic takes the front seat of difficulty as trying to figure out how clues play into each other and attempting to make leaps of judgement take front and center. The game gives you limited options to choose from in debates, narrowing down your choices, and gives a pretty decent amount of time to think things through before committing to a decision. Additionally mistakes are punished with damage to the player’s life points, but quite a few mistakes can be made before the player completely fails.

“Gentle,” the game’s easy mode, really eases up on the player, reducing the debate options even more, nearly making time a non-factor, and stripping most mini-games of their difficulty in the trials. On the other hand “Mean,” the hard difficulty, takes it in the other direction by giving the player a lot more options to choose from in debates, requiring the player to apply logic to the matter at hand and really find out what the answer is instead of firing blindly. The difficulty also cuts time by a lot for the player, requiring them to be quick with their decisions. Many of the various mini games also spike in difficulty, within the realm of reason, requiring the player to be more active and play closer attention.

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Overall difficulty modes in Danganronpa 2, dont affect much of the player’s experience, but instead give the player slightly more nuanced control over how they want to affect the logic of the trials. Do they want to proceed smoothly within the trial, or want to have to think hard about proceeding from topic to topic within the trial.

Tell Me A Story

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The recent trend for various developers and players alike has been that increased difficulty often leads to a better game. The more difficult and tiring it is to overcome a challenge, people seem to believe that it creates a much more fun game. While not entirely untrue that a good challenge is fun for the player to try and overcome, the trend to increasingly make things more and more difficult just because its possible is a silly notion. Games can still be a good time to the player even without a large difficulty spike (heh).

Most games have a difficulty setting where the player is asked to choose the difficulty of the story they are about to play. These generally range from an “Easy” mode to a “Hard” mode, with sometimes modifiers like “Very Easy” or “Very Hard”. Most of the time these labels don’t offer much of an explanation into makes the difficulty easy or hard, this often leads to the player defaulting to the “Normal” difficulty even when another mode may suit them better.

Also the terms Easy and Hard often have their own stigma surrounding them. Most players will naturally avoid an Easy mode because they are a veteran to video games and playing on Easy is below them. On the inverse, players can often be wary of a Hard mode for a first time run through of a game, as it is seen as a jump in difficulty that wasn’t the natural intended way for the game to be played.

Let’s take a dedicated look into the “Easy” difficulty mode, or how many developers have come to describe it as, the “Tell Me A Story” mode. In this mode the game’s challenges are severely reduced and made much simpler and easier to navigate through for the player. Essentially this mode is made so the player can advance from one plot point to another with little to no difficulty.

Why is this done the way it is? After all, aren’t most games intended for the audience to play through have fun and overcome some kind of challenge? Not necessarily. Many players in today’s day and age, dont have a large amount of time to work through and overcome a difficult challenge to get through a video game, but instead would like to spend their time enjoying the well crafted story that the game is trying to tell.

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Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc (A murder-mystery visual novel adventure game) developed by Spike Chunsoft)

But what if this takes away from the difficulty and fun of the game? A simple look into if this will take away someone’s enjoyment of the game is by referencing a similar game model in that of Visual Novel games like the above pictured Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc. Danganronpa is an adventure game centered around solving the mysteries behind murders. In terms of gameplay, Danganronpa is centered around advancing through a story, engaging in conversations with various characters, and interacting with the environment in an attempt to find clues about the murders. Additionally in the game’s “Trials” the player must deconstruct arguments with evidence and contradictions to uncover the mysteries riddled within.

All of these elements within the game are interesting and fun mechanics for the player, but additionally add an element of a challenge within its storytelling. Many of these mechanics can be described as puzzles set up for the player to solve that are there in each of Danganronpa’s difficulty settings. The difficulty settings only change the amount of health and star power the player has in trials (health determines how many wrong answers/replies can be made before a game over, star power allows the player to slow down time to focus on arguments).

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Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair, the sequel to Trigger Happy Havoc also developed by Spike Chunsoft.

Even with these basic mechanics and a more focused effort on telling a story to the player, Danganronpa is still held in high regards and has a very enthusiastic fan base. The first game sits at an overall 83% on Metacritic, and its most recent Steam release is sitting at an overall 97% positive rating. The sequel, which employs similar mechanics with a few new and reworked trial mini games, is also held in high regard with the original release being at an 81% on Metacritic, and the more recent Steam release also having a 97% positive rating.

The success of these two games shows that stripping the challenge from enemy encounters does not necessarily ruin the fun, as long as their is some substance behind it that the player can enjoy and experience. In most cases this is an exciting story that the player can enjoy, but just as well there can be smaller challenges that aren’t arduous and overbearingly difficult for the player in the form of some light puzzle solving.

All in all a mode that focuses on story telling is rarely a bad thing, as its just a separate mode that the player can choose to opt into and if not the existence of the mode doesn’t harm them. The recent resistance to such a mode has been quite perplexing, but its comforting to see more and more support for the existence of such modes.

-Michael

 

Don’t Fear The Reaper

A core aspect of difficulty in video games is the resulting punishment a game delivers if the player is unable to beat the game’s difficulty standards and progress pass it. In most games this takes the aspect of character death, which more than often proves to be a minor setback to the player and is a light tap to the wrist of the player to urge them to perform better and triumph over the challenge they are facing. But there are games that sway from the typical pattern of death as a punishment by implementing their own creative twists to these deaths.

For the basic example Hyper Light Drifter is an Action Role Playing Game that puts you in control of the Drifter as he adventures through a large land and engages in combat with various different enemy creatures. Combat is very swift and punishing, relying on the player to quickly dart in and out of combat avoiding taking damage. If the player fails to avoid enough attacks, their health points drop to 0 and their character dies. In Hyper Light Drifter, death is but a minor setback for the player as it will reset the player back to the start of the room they died in, or at a nearby checkpoint. This requires the player to repeat a challenge of a room, even if it contains various rounds of combat, from the beginning. While a minor inconvenience, this makes the player have to overcome a challenge from the beginning instead of taking it in bite-size chunks. Outside of this setback, Hyper Light Drifter offers no other penalty for death on the player, encouraging the player to get up after being defeated and immediately attempt the challenge again.

 

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Enter The Gungeon, a Rougue-like Shoot ‘Em Up developed by Dodge Roll

Enter the Gungeon, an interesting Shoot ‘Em Up that contains various Rogue-like aspects to it handles the punishment of death very differently than Hyper Light Drifter. As the genre “Rogue-like” tends to imply, Enter The Gungeon employs a system of ‘Permadeath’ on the player. So while Enter the Gungeon fires a barrage of bullets and explosions in the direction of the player, the player must dodge for their lives as only a few small mistakes can prove deadly to the player and result in a quick death for the player.

When a player’s character dies in Enter The Gungeon they are not brought back at the beginning of the room, nor are they brought back at the beginning of the level they were on. Death in Enter The Gungeon will bring the player to a results screen where they can view various statistics about their run, and then the player is returned to the main set-up area of the game where they must completely start off the dungeon again anew. Because of how Enter The Gungeon operates, every new entry into the dungeon is entirely new and randomly generated so even if the player has experience playing the game each encounter is different. So each death is an entirely new start and very tough punishment on the player. One that most players try to avoid for as long as possible.

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Kirby’s Epic Yarn, a Platformer developed and published by Nintendo

 

Kirby’s Epic Yarn has an entirely different approach to its punishment to failure. To be precise, Kirby’s Epic Yarn doesn’t punish its players for failure. Falling down a pit fall, taking damage, none of these are punishments to the player more than a slight tap on the wrist. Instead Kirby’s Epic Yarn has a sole focus on progress and a collect-a-thon for the player. A challenge where the only possible failure is the standards at which the player holds themselves to.

Its an extremely casual approach to the punishment of the player, which often leads Kirby’s Epic Yarn to be labelled by players as a children’s game. The game seems not challenging to those that are used to having a failure state in death. But Kirby’s Epic Yarn is more about the adventure the designers have crafted for the player to enjoy.

3 different approaches, each with their own principles and ideas behind their logic. While there is no real best approach to the punishment of failure. Knowing of different examples and the reasons behind the madness of each approach can let you experience and enjoy them for what each is worth.

-Michael

Engaging The Enemy, A Roll of the Die

In most games, combat is rather straightforward, the player launches an attack from the character and the game checks if the attack has landed, if so, the enemy takes damage and vice versa. Turn-Based Strategy handles this mechanic much differently, and more often than not, relies on a Random Number Generator (RNG) to calculate various things.

For a first example, let’s take a quick look at the Fire Emblem series and how it approaches how units engage in combat.

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In the Fire Emblem series, the game takes into account several different things for combat, first of all, the game calculates the strength of the attack through various modifiers. The “Atk” stat changes based on the nature of the attack, either physical or magical, and scales off of strength or magic, respectively. Additionally the attack value decreases the higher an enemy’s defense or resistance. Lastly, Atk checks if its super effective against the specific enemy unit.

The “Hit” stat is largely the biggest source of RNG, in Fire Emblem’s combat. Hit is calculated by the unit’s skill stat and increases the chance to hit an enemy, while the defending unit lowers his chances of getting hit with a higher speed stat. Both those stats together are calculated into a percentage chance for the attacker to land a hit.

“Crit” is another equally RNG dependent aspect of combat, perhaps more so than hit as when a unit successfully crits they deal triple the damage of their Atk. Because of this a successful crit often leads into an instant death. This stat is raised exclusively by a unit’s skill but not as aggressively as it raises the “Hit” stat.

With all these in mind it becomes clear that Fire Emblem is heavily reliant on RNG for its combat. The randomness lends itself into calculating risk for the player, as they must think about the “what if” scenario if a unit fails to land an attack that is crucial in a strategy to keep the rest of the units alive. Or if an enemy unit’s 25% chance to hit miraculously lands and now puts a unit into a dire situation. These are all scenarios which lend to the difficulty of Fire Emblem that each player must take calculated risks on in order to proceed. Although at times the randomness of the RNG can truly be rather unfair to the player, when an enemy unit not only lands a 13% chance to hit, but also successfully crits off of a 1% and instantly kills one of the player’s units. Players must take the good and the bad of Fire Emblem’s system as it is a fundamental style of the game.

 


 

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The XCOM series handles this very similarly to Fire Emblem with the exception that damage is not calculated by an outside factor but is instead tied to the weapon a unit is using in its attack. So the damage will likely fluctuate if the unit is wielding a rifle, a rocket launcher, or a pistol sidearm.

Additionally while crit is still handled in a % chance it is not nearly as strong as it is in Fire Emblem, where a crit only amplifies damage by an extra 50%. While still strong, a crit doesn’t often lead to an immediately dead unit, but can put that unit into a very dangerous position at low health. Increasing the crit chance is also much simpler in the XCOM series as it too, is not handled by an outside state of the unit, but takes into account if the enemy being fired upon is being flanked by the attacker, the weapon’s own crit modifier, as well as any skills that might change the crit chance.

Hit % is calculated by a soldier’s own aim, which raises as they gain more experience, as well as the effective range of the weapon being used, and the cover the target unit is behind if any. These come together and add up to a percentage chance of hitting your target.

Similarly to Fire Emblem, XCOM’s combat often feels up to RNG as players have felt that a 75% chance in XCOM, might as well be a 0% chance to hit, with how often these shots regularly miss their mark. This in itself lends to a harsh difficulty and requires the player to orchestrate a strategy to ensure the highest chances of success, instead of taking the luck of the draw.

 


 

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Valkyria Chronicles takes an entire different approach to combat. There are no displayed % chance to hit, no relaying of how much damage is dealt and no random crit modifiers for the combat. Instead Valkyria simply displays the amount of shots that are going to be fired, how many shots need to land to kill the enemy unit, and what types of units the weapon is effective against.

Instead of having a % chance to miss like the other two I’ve discussed, Valkyria Chronicles relies on the player’s own accuracy and how well they can aim the crosshair on an enemy unit to ensure the most amount of shots landing. Unlike First Person Shooters, the bullets fired aren’t pinpoint deadly and accurate, instead they will spray quite a bit in the large circle area displayed. This proves to be the main RNG the game employs in its combat, as some bullets can go off their mark and barely miss a target, making you miss a few key shots on a target.

Effectively this system is much more reliable, and less RNG dependent, and feels more fair to the player as their is a clear visual indicator of bullets landing or flying past their targets. Additionally, because it requires the player to aim at their intended target, when vital shots miss it feels more like a failure by the player for taking a sub-optimal shot or not trying to ensure the crosshair is fully covering an enemy unit’s body. While randomness can still screw you over by throwing a shot in the one tiny area of the crosshair not covering an enemy causing you to miss an exact lethal strike, it is not nearly as punishing of a combat system as the likes of XCOM and Fire Emblem.

All in all, the 3 turn-based strategy games I’ve covered share very similar difficulty mechanics, partially due to the genre they share, but just as often these games take an independent and varied approach about how to implement these challenges and change a tried and true formula for something new and unique. That’s all for now regarding turn-based strategy games, I’ll be returning sometime later with a new topic, until then have fun!

-Michael