Saturday, 30 July 2011

Unlockable Content Should be Meaningful

A thought occurred to me recently regarding the lack of unlockable content in games. Maybe I'm just not looking hard enough, or not reading any GameFAQs, but many games have no readily available hints that there's any sort of unlockable content. Take the newly released "The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D" for the Nintendo 3DS. There's no clear indication that there's any new content in the game aside from the original port, but it does have a "Master Quest" port (a harder, altered version of the game) and a "Boss Rush" mode. Had I not looked this up, there'd be no indication there was anything there.

Another thing that always bothered me were unlockable items and content that don't mean anything beyond being merely aesthetic. Like the impossibly huge number of hats you can unlock in Team Fortress 2. They don't mean anything. They're nothing special. And you get them for stupidly simple reasons, though no doubt a huge number of them involve spending money. There are countless deals daily on Steam for new, non-Valve products that offer hats to unlock in Team Fortress 2 should you buy these deals.

The hats may not be meaningless depending on your perspective and how much you value aesthetics, but the fact that you unlock them through buying whatever game Valve is supporting on steam makes them meaningless.

Unlocked content should be related to the game. You should be able to access it through completing objectives or goals within the game itself rather than hunting down obscure codes or making out-of-game purchases to get them. This adds meaning to whatever you are unlocking, because you are earning it. A silly concept in this day and age, I know, but it's an important one. Human beings feel the greatest sense of accomplishment and reward when they have earned something, not when it's handed to them on a silver platter they paid for or got for doing nothing. Does anyone care about Achievements in games like "Beat the game!" or "Level 85!"? No! People care about the Achievements that take time or are difficult to accomplish, like WoW's "What a long, strange trip its been" that involves completing every single holiday achievement in a year. Of course, it rewards a unique mount, but that right there is an unlockable item that has people clamouring for it every year.

The other thing games need is unlockable content that comes in more than just aesthetics or game play varieties. It needs a mix of both. A great example of this is the "Tales of" franchise of games, and I'll have to give a nod to "Tales of Vesperia" for this one. Not only do you have a number of side-quests, items, and other things you can unlock to get costumes to change the appearance of the game characters (from serious to silly designs), you also have a number of new features to unlock that affect gameplay as well. While this is more prevalent in the PS3 release of the game (Japan-only, currently), its still there. There's a secret dungeon hidden after completing the game. There's several types of arena modes. You can unlock a second tier of Mystic Artes (think like an "Ultimate" or "Overdrive"). Side-quests and other story lines that cannot be explored until the game has been completed, etc...

In other words, the unlocked stuff in Tales of Vesperia easily makes up for a good chunk of gameplay. The main quest is but one aspect of the game, and alone it can take 30-40 hours to complete. Unlocked content can easily add nearly 50% more game time if you explore it all.

More games need to be like that, and not just JRPGs. Every game needs something in there for the player to strive for after the main storyline has been completed. It's disappointing that in this day and age, we have developers that focus only on getting a product out and don't focus on any form of replayability, then they wonder why their game ends up being resold in the $10 bin at a Gamestop.

Of course, my choice of unlockables would be different depending on which one of my projects I was talking about. In my MMOs, additional vanity items and rare drops / difficult, long quest chains would easily act as venues to unlock content. In a platformer, I'd have additional characters that have unique gameplay elements that make playing through the game again fun, and of course it would need "Boss Rush" and "Horde" style modes too. A MOBA would have players unlocking new champions as they are released, as well as new skins, by playing the game and earning some form of currency (a feature common in MOBAs), so that they can pick and choose their rewards as they come in. I think you get the picture.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Ports and Why They Should be Done Well

Now, I'm not necessarily talking about ports of games from one system to another, or a remake of an older game being ported to a new system (which are both topics I would rather get into when someone actually gets under my skin). I'm talking about porting in maps, characters, mechanics, or weapons from previous installments of games into newer installments.

There's countless reasons for doing something like this, such as due to popular demand, because the previous game has fallen into obscurity (or is incredibly old), to put in as an unlock for players to strive for, etc... Either way, the reason doesn't matter, as any reason at all is good. However, I'm of the personal opinion that if you're going to make a sequel, to not include all maps / weapons / characters from previous installments and building upon those foundations is a foolish mistake to make.

Take Super Smash Bros. and Super Smash Bros. Melee for example. SSB from the Nintendo 64 introduces a number of characters, maps, and items, and SSBM built upon that. About the only gripe I can make about SSBM is that they did not include ALL the classic maps from the first game, only a small selection of them. Perhaps this was done to conserve memory because it is, after all, a console game. But who knows, really? To take this further, the jump from SSBM to Super Smash Bros. Brawl on the Wii saw the addition of even more characters, maps, modes, and a map maker. But it took out characters (Roy, Mewtwo, Dr. Mario) whom, arguably, were just clones, but then they proceeded to add Ike and Star Wolf who are also, arguably, just clones of other fighters. They also didn't bring back every classic map from SSBM. It was still a smash hit, because these minor losses are negligible in the grand scheme of things, but it's still unfortunate that the designers decided to take these things out.

I do feel that ports need to be done well should they be done at all. You can't simply port over an old map without taking into account how gameplay will be affected on this map by new or refurbished mechanics and physics. You also can't just port a map over while ignoring gameplay and balance concerns that were left in from previous versions. A port is a perfect time to revisit an old map and breath new life into it, to revitalize it and create a product that's closer to perfection than it originally was.

Which leads me into my next topic on porting maps, or rather, just 5 maps in particular: The Dead Air campaign from the Left 4 Dead franchise.

Dead Air is a campaign of 5 maps (4 regular sized maps followed by a single "hold-out style" finale) taking place in a city scape atop roofs and alleyways and finally an airport. It was one of the favourite campaigns from the first game. Valve has recently brought the map over from L4D1 and put it into the sequel as part of a DLC pack for L4D2.

Valve has previously ported an old map over, the No Mercy campaign, and it was in this blogger's opinion, a success. For one thing, they brought back the original survivors, allowing you to play as Bill, Louis, Francis, and Zoey using the new mechanics and engine on the old maps. They also restored the Horde Queues and combat music, the end of level / end of campaign music, and the stationary guns back to their L4D1 counter-parts rather than just sloppily leaving these elements as they were in L4D2. And, aside from one area of the game that had to be changed for Versus balance reasons (such as adding a fence around a ladder to prevent guaranteed 4-man death charges), the maps remained virtually unchanged. In addition, they removed all First Aid Kit spawns from the entire map save for in the safe rooms, a change welcomed by Versus players from all walks of the game.

Then along came Dead Air.

This port of the Dead Air campaign feels sloppy compared to the No Mercy port. Most immediately noticeable is the fact that the Horde music cue (which plays whenever a horde spawns) and the Horde music is using the Dead Center sounds from L4D2, rather than the classic L4D1 sounds that were originally used (and were ported over with No Mercy). In addition was the 50 caliber stationary gun from L4D2 being used during the Dead Air finale, rather than the original minigun that appeared in the No Mercy port. Seeing as how the aforementioned features were changed in the No Mercy port, but not changed in the Dead Air port, this just reeks of sloppy development by a game dev team that only cares to go halfway with a product (as history has proven when L4D1 and L4D2 were originally released in the first place).

Another issue is the lack of any changes to the maps themselves that would help rebalance them for Versus game play. There is a fence just to the left of the crane in Dead Air map 2 that's not there in campaign, there's some new flood lights in Dead Air 4 that make the map over-all brighter, and there's a large ring of fire in Dead Air finale that prevents people from camping at the yellow tape (a common and unbalancing tactic during versus game-play during L4D1's hay day). The ring of fire is problematic because zombies will spawn in or near it, and proceed to run through it to get to the survivors no matter where the survivors are standing. This reduces the number of zombies the players will encounter during the finale and shrink the time they are in the finale itself, resulting in tanks spawning quicker than normal due to a portion of the horde being wiped out at spawn time. SI and Tanks also can spawn near the fire and be lit, which is not an issue for Versus, it is a game play concern for Campaign (a PvE game mode that official Valve polls have shown to be played just as much as Versus).

There's no other changes to the maps. All the same camp spots that were problematic in L4D1 are still there and still usable. Even with the addition of the Charger and Spitter (deigned the "anti-camping SI"), a competent team is going to snipe these SI before they can pose any sort of threat. The least Valve could have done, IMO, is place some boxes under the pipes at the Dead Air 3 crescendo to prevent players from getting to it (a spot where CI have issues pathing to), and moving or removing the cement bags inside the half constructed building.

They also failed to remove the "Rescue Closets" from the maps, which were over-glorified and over-powered camp spots from the first game. While the Spitter and Charger are designed as counters to these camping tactics, the issue of Versus balance and Survivor strength negate the ability of SI to do their jobs effectively if the Survivors are anywhere halfway decent (but that's a different topic all together).

Map 4 has an issue with its crescendos (yes, there's two). Once the van has been started and it knocks over the fence, the Survivors need only rush through the baggage claim section and past the metal detectors. You're forced to step through the metal detector, which spawns an endless horde. However, if you rush the van crescendo, all the zombies will be chasing you from behind, and you will have nothing in your path to slow you down even once you trigger the metal detector. I suppose I can give Valve points for trying, but they came up short and failed to meet every expectation to prevent the van crescendo from being a complete rush-fest. If they wanted to (or even cared) to solve this problem, the van crescendo should've been turned into a gas collection mini-crescendo, forcing you to fill the van's gas tank to get the fence down before you can proceed, while fighting an endless horde while scavenging the gas.

Not a perfect solution, but its a solution none-the-less.

Now, on to what they did RIGHT. Unfortunately, I wish I could say this section would be longer than the rest of this post, but I cannot. First, Valve removed all first aid kit spawns except those inside the safe room, even in Campaign. This is the same change we saw with the No Mercy port and I'm glad they continued with this line of thinking. The Survivors also retained much of their dialogue from the original version of the map, something that was not present as heavily as in the No Mercy port (there are huge portions of missing dialogue that never play in the No Mercy port), so at least they learned from their mistakes, though they still need to go back and retroactively fix No Mercy.

Another thing they did "right" (though I wouldn't say it was necessary) was that they dolled up the van crescendo and plane crash graphics. The van crashing into the corner of the dry wall knocks a chunk out of it and kicks up dust, and the lights from the plane have a lens flare. Not the fanciest things ever, but its nice to see the graphics upped a bit, even if they are graphics designed to work in tandem on both PC and XBOX.


I think Valve is on the right track, but because of the balance and lack of polish issues they have with the Dead Air port, they have a long way to go, especially if they plan to release the remaining 3 campaigns from L4D1 onto L4D2 as DLC, along with the new Cold Stream campaign. They need to apply a fresh coat of polish to the ports by restoring the old music cues and the old miniguns, while at the same time optimizing the maps for balanced game play.

However, after two and a half years, I don't have any faith in Valve following through and breathing some life back into a game that died 3 months after release.