What is “Bad Difficulty” in a Game?

While things are happening behind the scenes with one of my clients and special announcements will be forthcoming in a few weeks – I thought it may be a good idea to make a blog post about something in particular. That something in particular will be a particular aspect of game mechanics; specifically I’m talking about “game difficulty” and the terrible ways some companies try to make their games challenging to their customers.

Difficulty is a good thing. Difficulty done right makes a game fun, it keeps you coming back for more in order to get past that one part you’re having trouble with. You’re presented with a predicament and despite how many times you’ve been stumped/killed/failed, you’re certain you can get past this part…there’s a little something that you’re missing; a pattern, a combo, an item, experience points…with enough exploration and trial, you’re certain you can move on AND feel rewarded for your actions.

Predicament, exploration, success, reward – this is difficulty done right.

Then there’s dumb shit like NHL 2015.

Can we compare a sports game to the typical criteria that I have in place for most games out there? I believe so – after all, you need to implement strategy in order to overcome your virtual opponent. If you’re playing the computer and it adapts to your playing style, you have to come up with a new way to win the game. This is where the difficulty comes in, attempting to outsmart the computer in order to come away with the W – will you dump-n-chase, regroup and criss-cross over the blueline, split the defense with your best player – just like a real hockey game.

Now we all know the sixth circle of hell that EA inhabits, and some of us are rabid Satanists who purchase at the trough of evil time and time again. There’s no choice for hockey fans, EA has an exclusive contract with the NHL and NHLPA to be the sole proprietor of their game. And so the same game with slight tweaks has been released over and over every…what maybe 5 years or more? More realistic skating, more faceoff control, more fights…

…crappy goaltending…

And there’s my gripe with this game – if you have the game at the hardest difficulty, and you happen to be owning it’s ass with a flurry assault of pucks at their net, the game will start to do two things.

  • 9 times out of 10 the goaltender you’re playing against will suddenly channel the combined powers of Patrick Roy, Dominik Hasek and Jesus Christ to stop everything possible (and impossible) in order to keep his team in the game. This power extends to the backup goaltender as well, who will lose his power over time if you pepper the net with pucks, but still – a goaltender with a 70 rating shouldn’t look like a Vezina trophy candidate every time they play you.
  • Your goaltender – despite an elite rating – will turn into a drooling basketcase who is completely convinced that the puck is actually a magical device meant to steal his soul it if hits him.

In the end, that doesn’t sound too much like difficulty as described, does it? An example would be the current game I’m playing with my step-brother – we started a season and randomly ended up with the Columbus Blue Jackets…which we were cool with because we were trying to have our goaltender win the Vezina for the first time and Sergei Bobrovsky isn’t a bad elite stopper to have. Our first 10 games he played exactly like we hoped he would; .920 save percentage, 1 shutout, making 30 stops a game. By the trade deadline he had won 90% of his games but had a .875 save percentage and only that 1 shutout…on a number of occasions he’d go into a cold funk and allow 3-4 goals on 15 or less shots.

We decided to trade him away, unable to claim the Vezina now, to a bottom feeding team for another goaltender and their high first round draft pick. We chose Tampa Bay, the team tied for 3rd worst in the league, and got their draft pick and Ben Bishop in exchange for some of our prospects and Bobrovsky. By the start of the playoffs, Bobrovsky had suddenly gone hot on the new team, and went on an incredible run that had them almost make the playoffs.

Horseshit.

How does any video game company brag that this is “difficulty that adapts to the user”? I shouldn’t have to worry, if I’m scoring and my offense is on a hot streak, that suddenly for no reason my goaltender is struck like Superman on a kryptonite bender. This is absolutely poor game design – if you’re going to challenge me with difficulty, RAMP UP THE DIFFICULTY OF MY OPPONENT, don’t nerf one of the most important players on my team!

Bottom line – difficulty in a game can adapt based on your performance, sometimes it’s needed and welcomed. But if the difficulty affects the effectiveness of your own sprites, you’re DOING IT WRONG!

PAX South and What I Learned about Marketing Independent Gaming

So PAX South has come and gone, and I had a total blast just like everyone else. For the first time in Texas, PAX did their best to give video game fans something that those who live in the Southern states could only experience if they did a long trip up north to Boston or Seattle. While checking out all of the booths and attending some panels, I learned a great deal…whether it was directly from a person, or indirectly from attending a panel. Just what did I learn from my first PAX convention?

#1.) Independent Gaming Companies are making some awesome games…

But you already know this! This is a no-brainer…and if you’re a gamer, you know that there are some awesome games being made by independents right now. I had tons of fun checking out all of the games from the independent companies, especially Starlight Inception from Escape Hatch Entertainment (@escapehatchent) – which I’ll admit I’m biased because I love Starlight Inception. Escape Hatch has a new game coming out based in the Starlight Inception world called Starlight Tactics that is a hardcore turn-based strategy game where you pilot your vessels and aim your weapons in a total open-space galactic plane interface. Using the touch-based interface on a tablet, It really made me feel like I was the navigator on a Federation Starship from Star Trek.

Mish Mash Machine (@MishMashMachine) has created “Raising Hell”, a fun platformer where as the demon “Damian”, you have to escape Hell before it freezes over. It’s very addictive and if you’re a big historical myth guy like myself, you’ll find endless amounts of humor in this premise. Dodge angels, fire bazookas, and teleport all over the place while Snowmageddon hits the 9 Levels of Hades*.

*I don’t think there’s just 9 levels of the game, I was just making a funny.

Desert Owl Games (@DesertOwlGames) was showing Poxnora (@poxnora) to the world – an already popular independent game that takes Magic: Duel of the Planeswalkers and turns it into the battle strategy game it wishes it could have been – a collection of miniature gameplay, Fantasy RPG and Customizable card games into one visual and tactical feast for the eyes and mind, Joystiq recently did a piece on Poxnora, calling it the “coolest online card game you’ve never heard of”…but that’s changing. Their game content is constantly evolving with new creatures and cards, and they’re easy to find either on their website or on Steam.

What’s great about PAX, if you don’t already know, is that it’s also a place for tabletop games as well. A passionate games designer named Will Stateczny of Topwise Games (@TopwiseGames) has created this funny new card game called Monkeys Need Love Too, where if the idea of being a monkey trying to escape a perfume lab and flinging poop is a fun night to you, then you should definitely check out this game.

#2.) A lack of local spotlight…

While I mentioned Escape Hatch, Mish Mash Machine and Topwise, I was a little disappointed at the lack of a local spotlight for San Antonio developers on the exhibition floor. Microsoft had a small exhibition area for independent programmers based out of Texas, but it was small and it was ALL of Texas…with maybe 5 to 6 indie companies at most on display – not including Escape Hatch, who are based in Austin and were there on their own dollar.

PAX really could have done more for the local scene – these small guys are hustling like mad trying to make their dreams a reality, but so many of them didn’t even make the cut. PAX South was a prime opportunity for PAX to make use of its brand and bring together so many new programmers, designers, businessmen, etc… to start the foundations of new games and new companies. I understand that much of the space was needed for the bigger companies that made it out, but there was so much space available in the gaming section of the convention. For a city that is priding itself on building its start-up scene, this could have really benefited San Antonio even more  – I hope PAX South 2016 opens the door for more independent gaming community people to come together, especially in the San Antonio area.

3.) Independent Gaming Companies Have Issues Getting Noticed…

All of these great indie gaming companies have a similar problem – getting the word out to people about their projects. When I was talking to president of Desert Owl Games Arthur Griffith, I was able to pick the brain of an independent who has built up his fanbase to make Poxnora one of the more popular indie titles online. His secret isn’t so much a secret but a tried and tested method of building a community the old fashioned way – inviting people to join, and cultivating the fanbase of the Poxnora and Steam forums into a strong group of vocal supporters. It is slow and methodical, maybe a bit too slow for most “on-demand” people, but when your fans feel like they are a part of the system and not just another stat, they become loyal supporters of your product. Word of mouth, healthy communication, strong selling point, and viral content – Desert Owl should be one of the benchmarks most indie start-ups aspire to become within their first 5 years of creation.

From the people I talked to on the exhibit floor, many of them considered marketing their game secondary and was using PAX as a way to get the word out – play the game at a game convention, seems like a good idea – and of course it’s a great one. But I also thought it was interesting to see how many of these companies either didn’t know how or didn’t have much time to market their games, but this comes as no surprise. As a game designer, you want to design games, not market them. You can’t get the word out on a project without having something to show the world first, and this usually means having a finished game to show them before starting up buzz. However, in my opinion most gaming companies who go this route are missing a small boat that could lead them up stream fast – but I realize this stems from two important issues:

  • Lack of time – When you’re up late from your day job trying to code your latest project, the last thing you’re thinking is “How the heck am I going to get people to buy this?” You want your project done, why be on Twitter when you could be debugging the next level? It’s totally understandable, but if people don’t know what to look for, how are they going to know to give your game a try? If “word of mouth” or “I’ll get to that later” is a reply, you could be missing out – not giving even social media a small chunk of attention now can lead to a number of different issues, including slow sales that never evens out, difficulty in differentiating yourself from the competition, allowing yourself to see what the competition is doing next and even legitimizing yourself as a gaming company.

This is kind of a “cart before the horse” issue, but when you have the problem of needing to build the cart beforehand, you have no time to purchase the horse. But there’s a lot of ways to get around this, including outsourcing to companies who do this for a living.

  • Lack of know-how – another issue I ran into is simply, people know about the tools of the trade, but don’t know how to use them. Again this is of no fault of anyone, programmers and designers are meant to program and design, not create buzz and drive sales to their game. Everyone knows that social media is a great tool for this kind of thing, but not many people know exactly how to use it properly. Some common questions or statements I received when chatting about this was:
    1. What do I post? – Blogs, updates, memes…ask questions to your followers, reply to them, build your community by making them feel like they are a part of something great. When your game is released, they’ll be even more hyped to try it, and pass on that hype to others.
    2. When do I post? – This information is widely accessible on the internet. Just type “social media peak hours” and you’ll find every social media site and the peak hours to post on them.
    3. We really don’t have much info to pass along – There’s a ton of different things you can write about, it doesn’t even have to be game related. It can be stories, anecdotes, anything you can think of…now combine that with a few retweets from like-minded followers and suddenly you have a stream of content for your followers…
    4. I just don’t have much time to update my blog or social media – Like I mentioned about, this is an actual legit issue. Who has time to do these things when you’re coding, designing and debugging?

There are a ton of resources available to designers to help market their games, social media being a huge hype engine that can get the ball rolling before the game is even released. With consistent organic content constantly being updated, an independent company’s followers can increase via hundreds of percent in the first 5 months of joining just Facebook and Twitter alone, never mind adding Google+, Reddit and other means of spreading the word.

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Game Developers – I’ll be writing a Part 2 to this blog about what you can really do to create your own online marketing plan to capitalize on all of the resources you can use to get the word out on your games!

Stay tuned!

Why I’ll Always Remember January 13th

I’m going to take a moment to write a personal blog entry before I continue with business. I’m listening to the BCS Championship game around 9:30 pm EST on January 12th, 2015. My first post gave everyone a quick peek into who I – Patrick – was behind the blog. In that blog I wrote the following line:

“3.) Exercise and Nutrition
This is partially where the idea for the name of “Spartan Creative” came up – I train diligently 5-6 times a week in the gym. Health, exercise and nutrition are all huge parts of my life, and while I’ve gone through parts of my life where I’ve had to stop or slow down due to whatever reason, I always eventually come back to it.
There’s a good reason for this, something that I’ll come back to in a new post.”

I’m going to make that post now.

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The Alternate Reality Game – Three Qualities that make a Good Puppetmaster

Hello friends!

Sorry for the hiatus, I was very sick for a little while, but I’m back and ready to continue our conversations.

I thought I’d start this entry as the beginning of a set of blogs centered around the idea of the ARG – Alternate Reality Games. I not only studied them with great detail in university, but am also a fan of their multiple uses in entertainment and marketing. While I’ve taken part in a few of these games, from simple messageboard communication to outright massive campaigns like Campfire’s True Blood, there is one role that has always particularly interested me – The Puppetmaster.

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“Did You Know This Was Done on Purpose?” – 4 Methods of Dark Marketing

I don’t know what it is about dark marketing / covert advertising that interests me so much, but I can begin to try and explain it. I think it has to do with the fact that this kind of marketing has nothing to do with a direct ad campaign – when you’re watching TV and see an ad with a Big Mac at a McDonald’s, you know you’re watching a McDonald’s ad. But to market a brand, product or service to a consumer without the viewer actually realizing that they’re being subjected to marketing, takes some clever work by the advertisers.

The 4 Methods of Dark Marketing Continue reading

Love and Romance – A Review of Stereotypes and Function

Right?…Anyone?…hmm, tough crowd…

Typically a huge part of most RPGs and Theatre centers on the idea of Love.  It can take many forms – be it metaphor, a tool for change, to give meaning…it goes on and on. It can be simple, it can be complex, it can be beautiful, it can be tragic…it can even be ugly as all hell.

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Transmedia 101 – 3 Part Explanation in 900 words or less!

 

Here is quite possibly one of the most challenging blog I’ve ever written…that I can explain the basic idea of a Transmedia project within a typical blog post length and format. Well, nobody can ever say I’m not up for a challenge, so let’s do this!

To show that we here at Heroic Games kind of know what we’re talking about, I will present the complex post-secondary school answer first: “The idea of a transmedia project like Heroes Must Die is in essence, a pervasive story that transcends one medium in order to tell a multi-level narrative that immerses its audience in a total experience that engages, interacts and ultimately reveals, in relation to how much voluntary effort is put into discovering the overall story.”

What does that seemingly overly pretentious jibber-jabber mean to the average person? Well I’ve found a great (yet slightly complicated) visual to go with the above statement…I’ll try and guide you through it so bear with me for a second and find out exactly why Heroes Must Die, along with other projects like it, are pretty cool. Continue reading