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Archive for March, 2010

Farmville

Soren Johnson on “Fear and Loathing in Farmville”

I didn’t attend GDC this year, and I was glad to be able to see this post. I found it most useful to explore why, aside from the business angle, so many developers are enthusiastic about social media games. The “dinosaur panel” sounds like it’s something I should like to have seen. The four points at the end that describe things social media games have that are genuinely exciting — true friends list, free-to-play business model, persistent asynchronous play, and metrics-based iteration — very true, I admire those things in social media games. However, I also agree with virtually every criticism given of social media games in the post, comments, and links.

In my Freshman year at DigiPen, Christopher Erhardt said something to the effect that everyone in the room (all programmers) would have a choice between those who will consume player’s lives with additive games like MMOs, or settle for less money with less intrusive games. Since then the choice seems to have become more stark.

I didn’t choose to become a programmer, or game designer, to make things that customers would spend time playing. I chose this career because I wanted to make things that would improve people’s lives and give them something that they would take joy in. As much as I like that social media games engage players in games against their real world friends and have the potential to be low-impact and enjoyable diversions, the inclusion of mechanics like crop rot are the result of what seems like a perverse incentive system for designers. AAA may be a clunky and high risk business model by comparison, but at least it doesn’t involve compromising the principles that drew me into game development.

I have two further take-aways from reflecting on this debate. First, I’m heartened to see the moral backlash against Zynga and social media games in general building in intensity. I have strong feelings about this and I’m glad I’m not alone here. Second, through this lens my respect for Blizzard’s new Battlenet 2.0 system (to be fully introduced with Starcraft 2) is increased: They are combining real friends and social space tools, persistent asynchronous play through meaningful scores and ladders, and metrics-based iteration as demonstrated through their current closed beta process. The beta is also free-to-play, for now, and they’re helping players to invite friends to the beta so they will be able to play with others they know. They’re cracking a lot of the benefits that Soren Johnson ascribes to social media games in a AAA title, without selling their souls in the process.

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Yes. Mass Effect 2 may be the greatest RPG I have ever played.

My last post was a now fairly dated investigation of the Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 pre-release review scores on Metacritic. The updated information is that Mass Effect 2 didn’t have its average go down when post-release reviews were taken into account, as I speculated; instead, it actually increased from 95 to 96. Perhaps this disproves the hypothesis that pre-release exclusive reviews are biased in aggregate. A competing explanation would be that Mass Effect 2 so good a game that no inflation was necessary.

I liked the first Mass Effect game. It was buggy and frustrating for the PC, but I still admired it. I liked the Paragon/Renegade system because I was able to largely ignore it and play my character the way I wanted, though I know many people found it distracting. I liked the many choices they included, and some even had sufficiently ambiguous morality that they caused players to deviate from their chosen alignment. I also liked the depth and creativity in some of their lore. When I played Mass Effect, I wanted to see sequels and spinoffs, and explore this universe more. Mass Effect 2 was one of the games I was looking forward to most.

I haven’t been disappointed. Though I crave the opportunity to play the game with a character that saved the council in the first game (I did not, and the ME2’s default history didn’t either), I can’t bear to replay the original when I could just play this one again. The combat in ME2 is more streamlined and satisfying, almost completely abandoning traditional RPG combat in favor of action. It’s still an RPG because you are roleplaying and make meaningful choices about your character and his or her interaction with the world. But, the combat resolution mechanics are now almost pure tactical third person shooter, eschewing traditional RPG strategy mechanics.

I love strategy games very much, but RPG combat systems are often interesting only because you have a stake in the character. This new action combat works and I love it; I restarted the game after beating it in part because I wanted to play through the battles again on a harder difficulty, with new skills. What if I have that cloaking ability and use sniper rifles? What if I start controlling my ally powers? As I discovered, it becomes much more tactical as the difficulty increases. Amazing how the game slides seamlessly between action and tactics.

Many RPGs fall into the trap of having combat be a tool to pace out your consumption of content by slowing you down. Ideally, the fights in a great RPG should be just as interesting as the characters and story. Mass Effect 2 fulfills that goal. I consistently look forward to the combat, and am drawn to play through sequences I’ve already beaten because the battles are just that good. I absolutely love roleplaying. I love it even more when the gameplay that supports it is so enjoyable.

Let me step back from my praise, however. My biggest disappointment is that BioWare continued the pattern established in the first Mass Effect of only allowing same sex relationships for a female Shepherd. I respect that they do at least that much, and I further respect that BioWare designed the game with the intent of including M/M love interests, but this was simply cut for time on grounds that the audience interested in this is small, and I find that very disappointing given that there are no less that three potential F/F love interests. This isn’t just some idle fancy. It is a huge difference in my sense of identification, agency, and ownership of the world.

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