Wednesday, December 16, 2009

offline play

It seems as if offline play is increasingly forbidden. It's not enough that games features rely on an internet connection, like online multiplayer. No, the game must be connected so that the publisher can verify its legitimacy; otherwise, the game is crippled... even unplayable.

Case in point: I've been playing Oblivion recently and investing a lot of time into decking out my character's castle, a DLC addition to the game. The castle was my focus, for reasons I've previously described. Late last week, lightning fried my modem and severed my internet access for a few days. When I attempted to load my game, I was told some content is "no longer available" and would I like to load anyway? In a moment of naivety, I answered, "yes".

Well, I'm back online now, and you can probably guess what happened. My castle was part of that content no longer available. And when it disappeared, so did everything inside. Hours of gameplay lost. I had been stocking it with all sorts of items, including one-of-a-kind quest rewards and magic items. All gone. I even had to redo the quest to gain possession of the castle.

Had I known I would lose all of this if I loaded my save file, what were my other options? There were only two other options: to start a new character or don't play the game. In other words, I was cut off from all progress I had made in the game until I was online again.

This is far from an exceptional experience. Every time I'm away from internet access, half my Xbox Live Arcade games are not playable at all, and DLC is often unavailable.

How rare is it to be cut off from internet access? It's not that uncommon.

Many people have unstable connections. I have known many people who lose internet access for minutes at a time and have experienced that myself. Scott was telling me today that he can lose internet for just a few seconds and it means he cannot save the game he's playing because his DLC access was cut off during that small hiccup.

Many people travel to locations with no internet. I took my Xbox 360 to such a place over Thanksgiving and was denied access to many of the games I own because of this online verification nonsense.

Publishers, stop treating your customers like thieves. Somehow, every other industry has survived frequent thefts without placing limits on how and when customers can use the products they buy. Figure it out.

Friday, December 11, 2009

show player limits

A problem I seem to run into increasingly often in games is that I'm shown a goal my character doesn't yet have the skills or other means to reach and am not informed of this limitation. In other words, the goal/achievement is listed or shown somewhere, and I spend an hour trying to achieve it before realizing that I'm not supposed to try yet.

For example, The Saboteur has a Perks section in the pause menu. If the player accomplishes specific tasks (kill 5 Nazis with a scoped rifle, blow up 10 radio towers, etc), then a reward (extra ammo, less sniper sway, etc) is unlocked and the player can try to complete the next level Perk. One of those Perks challenges the player to blow up four train bridges. Well, I've been to a number of these bridges now, large and small, trying to figure out how to blow them up and it doesn't seem possible.

Apparently, some future mission(s) will unlock my ability to destroy the bridges. The problem is that I wasn't told that... and since I have been able to destroy every other Nazi target with dynamite charges, I had no reason to assume bridges are any different. So I wasted an hour or so trying to figure out how to do something I can't do.

Overall, I'm enjoying The Saboteur. I'm just using that as an example of a problem I've experienced in many games recently.

A developer has options. First, you can hide a goal/object/area until it is achievable. Second, you bluntly tell or show the player that the goal will become achievable later. Or you can ensure that it is impossible for the player to encounter the goal until it is achievable. There are probably other options as well. In any case, the problem is relatively easy to avoid if taken into account.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

home sweet home

Almost without exception, when a person walks into a home for the first time, that person will deliberately look around at the furnishings and decorations. The same can't be said for businesses, schools, etc.

A great but uncommon feature in RPGs is a place the player can call home and fill with stuff from his or her adventures. From Everquest 2 to Oblivion to The Sims games, player homes have been offered in many forms but always to great appeal. Gamers like to be able to share their personalities and experiences with in-game visuals.

The Sims games are rare in that player-created content is a cornerstone that enables endless variety. Most games aren't open to that, so I'll instead focus on Oblivion as an example.

Oblivion allows me to own multiple homes simultaneously in different cities. Those homes vary greatly in architecture and size. I prefer to focus on just one place, a castle I got through DLC (Bloodhorn Castle). I can't buy new wall textures or furnishings, like in EQ2. But that's alright, because the beauty of Oblivion's system is that it allows me to bring back items I find in my adventures and place them where I like. That includes weapons and armors, gems and jewels, clothes, quest objects, tableware, and even food.

So, for example, in one display case I keep all the gemstones I find. In another I keep jewelry I've won and stolen (my character's a thief). In yet another, I have the decorative breastplate and shield of the castle's former owner.

Every wall has a small nook, and in these nooks I place silver, pewter, and decorative urns. In the corners, there are helms and shields from the different enemies I've slain. On racks are various weapons and shields from quests and merchants.

The beauty of this is that it is truly my home. It reflects not only my preferences and aesthetics, but my experiences and desired memories as well.

Homes reflect their owners. They provide subjects for friends and strangers alike to discuss. And they provide owners with comfort and tools for reflection. In a game, that means players socializing and looking back to remind themselves of all the experiences that make the game worth playing.

Incidentally, Oblivion allows players to make considerable money through alchemy, so in my latest playthrough I haven't needed to sell any extraordinary item I find. I can bring these back as souvenirs. Of course, I can sell these at any time. My decorum is also my financial collateral.

The home is a too often neglected feature in RPGs.

By the way, I'd show you pictures of my furnished castle, but I play the 360 version of Oblivion. My PC isn't good enough to run the game.

Friday, December 04, 2009

competing for Awards

For many gamers, like myself, Xbox Live's Avatar Awards are still mythical. I have yet to play a game with Awards, because few games offer them. Perhaps that's because Awards are, at the moment, nothing more than visual Achievements. That's not bad, really, but there could be more depth.

Many people care about XBL Achievements and many don't. That's largely because it's an all-or-nothing scenario in favor of those with lots of spending money (to buy games with) and a long time owning the console. If someone has owned a 360 for a year longer than you, they probably have a higher Gamerscore.

Achievements are also impersonal. If you and I play the same game, we'll typically get the same Achievements for doing the same things.

But what if Avatar Awards were different? What if gamers could compete for them?

What if my friend JoeSchmoe64 and I could voluntarily wager that one of us will get a particular Award before the other? The winner gets the Award, while the same Award is blocked for the loser. The winner could be given the power to unlock the loser's Award for him afterward, or they could agree to permanently leave one with the trophy and the other empty-handed.

If the game included multiple Awards, then Joe might win two trophies while I win two others... and we'd each have something to show.

Keep in mind, Avatar Awards needn't all be complicated models or animations, like a train moving around an avatar's feet. They could be as simple as blocks stacked beside an avatar or a banner draped behind, each signifying a specific achievement.

Honestly, I haven't put much thought into this idea. But the basic idea is that Awards could be made more meaningful than Achievements by allowing players to bet them as stakes or otherwise making them reflect actions that set one gamer apart from others.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009


It has become fairly common for games to include some sort of tutorial. Many incorporate the tutorial into actual play, as Halo and Assassin's Creed do. But there's still room to improve, of course.

One improvement would be to design a tutorial system specifically for reintroduction. Gamers often abandon a game for days or even months. They forget the controls, goals, interface, etc. It would be nice if there was an option for these gamers other than looking at a control map in the pause menu or starting over.

In most cases, a practice area would serve this purpose. Provide the player with an area where all skills may be practiced without great penalty or challenge. Allow the player to practice here without a tutorial, in case the player is able to pick it up quickly or is impatient. But also provide the option of instruction in the form of NPCs, signs, HUD pop-ups, etc.

Jogging a player's memory is different than teaching him or her new skills. There should be a different system for it, when time allows.