Saturday, 25 February 2017

5 Ways to Make a Dark Souls Easy Mode

Prepare To Die A Little Less Edition?
Many people have suggested that you just couldn't make an easy mode for Dark Souls. They are of course incorrect, making an easy mode is actually really easy, and to prove this I've made a list of ideas.

As a disclaimer, I'm going to add the point that many of those do also make, which is that these changes may change the nature of the game, or alter the experience of the game. That's pretty much the point though, since there's already a fundamental difference in experience that different players have when playing the same game. Everyone has their own personal skill levels and tolerance for difficulty, challenge, patience and frustration. We all have different rates with which we can learn, with which we can adapt and with which we can persevere.

I may grow frustrated after failing to complete a section of a game or a boss after a few attempts, for you it may take dozens. I may decide that a game isn't worth my time after only a handful of setbacks, for you each setback may provide the impetus to soldier on. Even with a game where the levels are straightforward, obvious and have a slow and gradual difficulty curve there will be people who get bored or frustrated and quit before they ever get near the finish. Of course you cannot cater for everyone all of the time, but difficulty modes are a design choice to allow for greater accessibility that are usually worth the effort it takes to create them.

Not only does a developer want to challenge the player, but they also want the player to overcome those challenges. They want the player to experience as much of the game as possible because they spent so much time creating it. Also from a financial standpoint, the more that enjoy your games will hopefully translate into more people buying those games (and future games).

1. Keep your Souls after death

An easy way to make an easy mode would be to change one of the mechanics. Currently, you lose your souls upon death, and have to /return to the spot where you died to collect them. A simple change would be to have you keep those accumulated souls. That way, you might die, but you'll have a resource to upgrade or level up before repeating the encounter that killed you. It removes some of the punishment, and should help players push forward and take more risks knowing that death won't be so bad.

2. More NPC phantoms

Dark Souls is very inconsistent with it's NPC helpers. Sometimes they're overpowered, sometimes there are multiple ones, sometimes there are none. Sometimes they're right next to the boss area, sometimes they're slightly hidden. When the game is new and popular, other players are very helpful, but for those playing offline or when the game is no longer popular, NPC phantoms are all the help you'll get. So perhaps a bit more consistency here would be a good solution for bosses and areas where players get stuck.

3. A few Health changes

A bit of extra health can go a long way. Perhaps it might just be enough for you to be able to take an extra hit before you die, meaning you have enough opportunity to retaliate or run away. You could easily change the level up mechanics to give the player more health every level (and a bigger chunk extra if they choose to spend their Souls on Health alone).

4. Resistances

One of the more challenging parts of Dark Souls for me are those instances where you get poisoned, cursed or some other status effect ruins your day. There are already items, armours and stats in the game to assist against these, but they're often in hard to reach areas, or expensive to buy. The players that most need these aids will have the hardest time getting them. So perhaps changes in item location or making them more easily available from early vendors would help.

5. A few more bonfires

Another inconsistent thing throughout the Dark Souls series is the placement of bonfires. The distance between them, or between them and the bosses is varied, and sometimes they can even be hidden away where new and inexperienced players would never look. A few more safe havens in otherwise difficult areas would help provide a break when things are otherwise looking bleak.

So there you have it, five easy ways to make the game easier, without doing much to affect the game in any significant way. There are probably dozens more ways you could change the difficulty, and you could even change things in a more difficult way for experienced players (New Game Plus modes sometimes do this, in limited ways at least).

A Discussion On Difficulty

What makes a game difficult? What makes a game challenging? What makes a game frustrating?

I'm sure if you asked a hundred people, they'd give you a hundred different answers. Difficulty, challenge and frustration depend on individual experience, and expectation.

The key to thinking about this is not to consider what you personally find difficult, but rather to consider that not all people are created equal, and therefore tasks that might seem trivial to one can be frustrating to another. It is then important to consider that a game developer can only draw from their own knowledge and experience, and that they will always have to make choices about how they create the challenges in their game.

I write this now, because of the trend over the last few years to describe difficult games in terms of Dark Souls, and the complimentary trend in which others take umbrage at the comparison. Games are like Dark Souls because they're difficult, but Dark Souls isn't difficult! Games are like Dark Souls because of these mechanics, but those mechanics aren't key to Dark Souls!

Honestly, it's comparable to the endless discussions about what makes a Rogue-like, Rogue-lite or whatever. And who wants to die on that hill?

I've also seen a few interesting thoughts from others about difficulty that has made me think about my own opinions on the matter. Firstly there was Shamus Young in the middle of discussing the Arkham games, then there was Philippa Warr discussing the difference between difficulty modes in Thimbleweed Park, and finally a short video on Hyper Light Drifter by Matt Lees.

I can't remember the first game I played that had a difficulty choice at the start. But this option has become far more popular over the years. A lot of games used to just drop you in at the beginning, with the game ahead a complete unknown.

Difficulty choices can make a game more accessible, and they can add extra challenge for experienced players. There's also a range of different ways in which a game can be made more or less difficult, depending on the game in question.

There is no game for which alternative difficulty modes could not be created, but creating these choices can vary in difficulty. I'd like to see all games offer players a choice of difficulty, but there may be limits to what the developers wish to (or can) create.

There's two ways to offer players a difficulty choice: Present them with options at the start of the game (which may or may not be alterable throughout the game), or incorporate the difficulty choice within the game itself (or indeed use a combination of both). There are so many great examples of both methods (and terrible examples) that I couldn't possibly mention them all, but I'll try and be as comprehensive as possible.

The starting option is often what people consider when they think of difficulty modes. You get a choice between different levels of difficulty at the start of the game, with very little context for that choice. Most players will probably choose the "normal" difficulty, or whichever is pre-selected as standard. "Easy" difficulty might seem like a cop-out, especially if you have no idea what it actually entails. "Hard" likewise might seem too daunting.

The more options there are available, the more confusing it's likely to be for a new player. It's more forgiving when the game is likely to be replayed multiple times, as the player can start at a lower difficulty and then on repeat playthroughs ramp things up to increase the challenge. Sometimes the difficulty can be adjusted mid-way through, so if you've made a poor choice there's the option to recover without having to start from scratch.

Common examples of this are Wolfenstein, Doom and Quake. The tiers of difficulty in such games generally alter relatively easily modified elements of a game. These might include the amount of health a player has, how much damage the enemies do, how much damage the player can do, and so on. They also might be more complex, and involve enemy types and enemy placement.

The two examples I've picked are System Shock and Mount & Blade. They both offer very different ideas on difficulty. System Shock gives the player a series of options for difficulty, with four sections. "Combat" governs the enemy strength, "Mission" governs certain story elements, "Puzzle" which governs certain interactions like hacking keypads, and "Cyberspace" which was a separate section of the game. This allowed players to adjust the game to their needs, especially necessary due to the rather awkward control system and user interface.

Mount & Blade has a different set of difficulty options, more relevant to the sort of game that it is. It allows you to change the amount of damage that you receive, how smart the combat and campaign AI is, and various other minor options. These options are welcome, but not exhaustive. There are a vast amount of other options that could have been adjustable, but are not (such as how much money and reputation you receive or lose in certain situations). The in-game difficulty can be altered at almost any time, allowing you to tailor your experience to make it as challenging as you like.

Both games show flexibility in their approach, in different ways. System Shock's options allow you to affect the very mechanics of the game, for example setting "Combat" to "0" will make enemies virtually unresponsive and easy to defeat. Mount & Blade doesn't offer options to significantly change the mechanics, but rather allows the player to reduce the effectiveness of the non-player characters. Mount & Blade also doesn't allow the player to completely lose the game, at most you'll only lose your army, your money and some items, but you live to fight another day.

Point & Click adventure games usually don't offer difficulty options, mainly due to the extra work required to adjust puzzles. There are plenty of adventure games in which the puzzles chain together in such a way that to take out an item, character or interaction would affect so many other parts of the game. There are a few good examples though, such as Monkey Island 2. While I wouldn't consider MI2 to be a difficult game, there are a lot of challenging puzzles which newer players might find frustrating or incomprehensible. Long-term adventure game players can sometimes feel like certain puzzles are easy due to the experience that comes with having played many games of a certain type.

The easier mode in Monkey Island 2 alters the solutions for several of the more difficult puzzles, usually replacing it with alternative dialogue, removing items or interactions from a puzzle chain, or just omitting or changing a scene entirely. You get a slightly different experience, and miss out on a few jokes, but otherwise the majority of the game and story are the same.

Of course as a developer, you might decide that you can't or don't want to offer a difficulty choice at the start of the game. In this case, you either give every player the same experience, which some players will find easy, others too hard. A good example for this is something like Devil Daggers, an arcade-style experience where the goal is to last as long as you can against ever more intense swarms of enemies. Difficulty options could be added, but the developers decided that they wanted all players to face the same challenge, with a leaderboard to show who can survive the longest. This is comparable to many earlier games, which at best would have hints and tips for you in the manual, but would otherwise expect you to deal with a single, standard, one-size-fits-all, difficulty.

Then you have examples from adventure gaming such as King's Quest and Quest for Glory. Both of these games don't allow for a difficulty choice at the start of the game, but they offer potentially different experiences to different players. In King's Quest, you were tasked with regaining the three lost treasures of the kingdom. How you go about this task is up to you, and while many of the puzzles had a single solution, others had two. Usually the choice was between a peaceful and a violent solution or bypassing the puzzle by forfeiting an item of value. Solving the puzzles in the more peaceful and usually more difficult method would gain you more points, so it rewarded players for playing the game as the developers intended, while still allowing other players to complete the game in a less optimal way if they couldn't solve the puzzles.

Quest for Glory, with its merger of RPG and adventure gaming genres, allows the player to select from three character classes, each of which gives you a different potential set of options for solving puzzles. The Fighter generally prefers brute force, the Magic User uses spells, and the Thief uses subterfuge. Many puzzles allow for three different solutions, and often the player is able to use a different solution than their chosen character class, if they have the prerequisites for it. For example, a Fighter may break open a locked door, while a thief picks the lock, and a magic user uses an unlocking spell. But if my magic user has a high enough strength, then they are able to break open the door. This sometimes made the game easy, but no less enjoyable.

So with those examples out of the way let me turn back to Dark Souls. The Dark Souls games are beloved by their fans, and have had endless gushing praise about them, for good reason. They provide an experience that is similar in many ways to other games, but different enough to stand well apart. They have done enough to carve their own niche, and have been popular enough that others are starting to copy them.

They don't offer a difficulty choice at the start. But they do offer choices, many of which will affect the difficulty, especially early in the game, and especially for a new player. As an RPG, you choose your character class, and you have a small choice of starting equipment. These choices can have a big impact on how difficult the early game is, with the different character classes having wildly varied starting equipment. The Knight, for example, has a great armour set and weapon, whereas the Deprived starts with nothing but a club and wooden shield. You also get an item selection, most of which is of minor use.

Dark Souls handles difficulty in a similar way to Quest for Glory, there are player-made choices in terms of your character class which affect how you will approach different situations. There are also choices in terms of your equipment and and how you spend your upgrades throughout the course of the game. Some choices can make things easier, and some choices will make things harder. Part of Dark Souls' mystique is that it doesn't readily explain the consequences of your choices. You may make valid choices for the stage or area of the game that you're currently having problems with, but correcting poor choices can be difficult or impossible.

So even though the game is carefully designed, and it provides the same choices for all players, the difficulty you will face is entirely dependant on player choice and player ability. The experience is different for all players, because the choices and ability of all players will be different. What might feel fair and balanced to one player will feel frustrating and difficult to another. What provides a challenge and excitement to one, provides a brick wall and disappointment to another.

I've seen many suggest that the difficulty is part of the game, that the oppressiveness is ingrained into the story and to make it easier is to ruin this. However, there are players who will be more skilled and find the game easy anyway, and players who will find the game unbelievably hard without ever getting to experience enough of the story for this to have any beneficial effect. Not to mention that the game has been altered since release, with patches making at least a couple of changes to make things easier.

Difficulty is always a choice, from the way the game is designed, to the ways in which it is played. I have no issue with a game being made deliberately more difficult, or being given a dozen different difficulty options so that I can experience the game as I see fit. What I want people to understand is that the knowledge, experience and skill levels of players is a wide range, and that allowing flexibility in difficulty will allow a greater number of players to experience your game.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Discussions on Definitions: The Rogue-like

Words can be flexible, they can be changed. Language is dependant upon usage, and so new words can crop up or old ones can be co-opted to new meanings. With games, a new language had to be created from scratch once those first games appeared. As they became more popular, the language evolved and terms were borrowed or created from wherever was required.

Even now, such terms are often not entirely fit for purpose. We call certain games "First Person Shooters", where they might previously have been known as "Doom-clones" or just "Shooters". All these terms are descriptively opaque, unless you are aware of the culture from which they sprung (and even then, they don't completely convey the full nature of the game that they attempt to describe). They're a shorthand, but they're imperfect, and no doubt a lot of these sorts of terms will change over time as better terms are coined.

"Rogue-like" is one such term that I thought was long past its sell-by-date. The game "Rogue" was first released in 1980, and it didn't take long for others to copy various elements of its design. Such games were termed "Rogue-likes" to convey their similarity to the original Rogue. These games often copied many of the same design elements: Characters and monsters based loosely on Dungeons & Dragons role-playing standards, procedural generation, game over after a single death, multi-level dungeons, and so on.

The term Rogue-like went out of favour for a while, with that type of game being overshadowed by the RPG - a catch-all term for a genre that is so wide that it would require an article to itself. The general idea was to create an approximation of the tabletop role-playing game using a computer to do the dice-rolling and paperwork and leaving the player to enjoy a more crafted and directed story, with well defined rules and mechanics. The fact that games as diverse as Mass Effect, Pillars of Eternity, Dark Souls, Fallout and Skyrim can share the same label somewhat dilutes it's usefulness.

The labels we give games are attempts to provide descriptive terms, but they vary in their application and their usefulness. Sometimes a game can be described in terms of another: Rogue-like. Or it may be defined in terms of mechanics: Real-Time Strategy. Or it may be described in a more abstract term: Adventure Game. Sometimes these terms are useful, sometimes they are only useful in context, and sometimes they rely on prior knowledge.

In the past decade or two, there has been an explosion of independent games development. People chose to makes games that reflected the experiences they had when they were younger, often harking back to styles and mechanics that had gone out of fashion in mainstream game development. Rogue-likes had remained popular throughout the years, but there was now a potential audience like never before. Some of these new games were recognisably like Rogue, their history easily traced back. Others used certain mechanics, but wanted to make something very different.

The terms "Rogue-like" and "Rogue-lite" were used, no matter how ill-fitting they might be. They were used as umbrella terms, much like RPG, where there are certain common characteristics but broad enough that it allowed for so many games to occupy that same ground.

The problem arises when you consider that the vast majority of people who play games will never have heard of Rogue, let alone played it. They at best will associate it with certain mechanics, if only by association with other games of its type.

Like so many terms in gaming, it feels like we're a long way from creating the terms we need to fully describe the immense variety and complexity of the medium. It's a young medium, with plenty of room to grow, so this isn't a pressing need. With the advent of VR experiences, things are only going to get increasingly complex, and it may be some time yet before gaming has the level of descriptive language about itself as literature or film does.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Star Trek: 25th Anniversary - Boldly Adventuring

I would certainly consider myself a Star Trek fan, and a fan of science fiction in general. I grew up watching re-runs of the original series of Star Trek, and watching the classic movies. Gene Roddenberry created a series that was hopeful, insightful, heartwarming, exciting and occasionally quite silly. It may have sometimes been a little rough around the edges, or been a little simplistic in it's ideals but the camaraderie and positivity of the core characters was brilliant and went from strength to strength.

For it's 25th Anniversary, an adventure game was created to celebrate the series, and it even managed to include (on the CD-ROM edition) the voices of the original series stars. As a series of episodic adventures, it really captures the spirit of the show, as the crew of the Enterprise investigate a collection of alien worlds, with action, adventure and some difficult puzzles along the way.

The game opens with a space-combat exercise, with the Enterprise in mock-battle with a fellow Federation starship. Intended to teach the player the controls, it's actually a very difficult battle with the added pressure of not knowing what exactly you're supposed to be doing. On my first attempt I failed very quickly, and my second didn't last too much longer either. Failing this is no barrier to progress though, and I figured I'd have to learn the combat system with real enemies instead.

The ship combat isn't the strongest part though, so it's a shame really that so many of the episodes contain it. The control scheme is imperfect, and it doesn't really add much to the experience. I'm not a big fan of arcade/action style sequences in adventure games at the best of times either, and these give you no option to skip or avoid.

The game excels when you beam down to the planet or place of interest that comprises the main body of the missions though. The interplay between the main cast is very similar to the show, and the locations and puzzles have just the right feel. The voice acting, while not perfect, adds to the feeling that you're playing through episodes of the show.

Your away party consists of Kirk (essentially you, as leader), a member of the security team (the classic Redshirt), McCoy (for all your medical needs) and Spock (endless amounts of knowledge, Vulcan nerve pinch, and other scientific help). In fact, Spock seems to be the most useful member of the team, and the Redshirt only seems to be available to die if you do something wrong.

My only criticism is the occasional obtuse nature of some of the puzzles, and sometimes the environments are unclear. There are at least a couple of occasions where you can miss an early step and leave yourself in an unwinnable situation. This isn't uncommon in adventure games (unfortunately), but it is unnecessarily frustrating.

Criticisms aside, the majority of the episodes were very enjoyable, and I liked the emphasis on teamwork, puzzle-solving and occasional diplomacy. At certain points, you are given dialogue options, with a choice between something Captain Kirk might actually say, and some less than perfect responses.

The success of this game lead to a follow-up, "Judgement Rites" which I look forward to playing.

Friday, 16 September 2016

Indie Gaming: Firewatch

Firewatch, Campo Santo games, 2016
In many ways, our protagonist in Firewatch is typical of gaming: White, male, bearded... but rather than joining the clones of gaming past, his characterisation saves him. We get introduced to him via a short choose-your-own-adventure style story, in which you get a summary of his relationship with his wife, with a few choices along the way. These choices grant you a more close relationship with your character than most games, as even these simple choices can give you a greater understanding of the role you will be playing.

Henry is a man tormented by his choices, with a feeling that he has not only made bad choices, but also doesn't know how to, or doesn't want to deal with the repercussions. This leads him to become a lookout during the summer fire season. He seeks an escape from his problems, a quiet solitude in which he can immerse himself in other tasks. He seeks an escape from his wife, who has Alzheimer's and (due to his inability to care for her) is with her parents in Australia.

One of the few first-person games to actually give you a body to look at, so you don't feel like a floating camera
What he finds is a prospect of busywork and monotony, long hours spent watching the forest or trying to stave off boredom. However, a voice on the end of a radio provides him with a purpose, and a friendly ear. Delilah is a more experienced lookout, and has been doing this for several years, so provides an informative mentor for Henry. She's also very talkative, quick to joke and there gently develops a tender relationship between the two, bordering on the romantic.

One of the many beautiful views
The initial hours of the game allow for a gentle exploration of your surroundings. You are guided to a certain extent, but allowed relative freedom to explore the trails surrounding your lookout tower. The pace is quite relaxed and the friendly tones of Delilah are a great accompaniment. Not long after, things start to speed up.

The story threads begin with almost no consequence, a couple of troublesome campers, a stranger on the path at night. The tension builds up slowly, the two teenagers causing you more trouble, your lookout tower broken into, the telephone wires cut. It comes to a head when you find a clipboard with transcribed radio conversations, a radio, and get a knocked out for your trouble.

After the slow burn start, now the mystery begins. It feels like an adventure, much like the trashy spy novels you find scattered around the place. Slowly you uncover this conspiracy, a remote listening post, strangers lurking in the woods, missing hikers and missing teenagers (including the two from earlier). To add to it all, a huge fire begins to spread through the forest, in the distance.

Your map gets annotated as you explore
Danger, mystery, exploration, all the hallmarks of a proper gaming adventure. As the fire builds to the south, the heat, the tension and the smoke build, and you can't help but get invested in the struggle that the characters are having. These two are miles apart, linked only by a radio. Not wholly sure that they can trust what each other is saying, they have to rely on each other because there is no other help to call on. There's a real sense of paranoia to their interactions after a while, as they start to fray at the edges.

The kicker of course is that the grand plotting mostly exists in the heads of Henry and Delilah, and by extension, you the player. These clues and mysteries that you find are not some big conspiracy, there's no secret recording station experimenting on forest fire lookouts, there's no vengeful killer picking off helpless hikers in the hills. The antagonist turns out to be a father, broken by his choices, unable to face the consequences of his actions, driven mad by grief and regret.

Here is the dark path laid before us, and as Errant Signal points out, a mirror to our protagonist. Another man approaching middle age who has made some terrible decisions and sought refuge in the wilderness. The difference being that Ned took his son along with him, contrary to the rules, selfishly pushing his son into activities unsuited for him, and ended up accidentally killing him. Henry's sins are less severe, but he still acts with selfishness in the introduction when he makes it difficult for his wife to take a new job, and when he rejects having children. Henry then cannot cope when his wife gets early-onset Alzheimer's, and his drinking lands him with a DUI and his wife with her family in Australia.

Henry, unlike Ned, has a chance at redemption, but it is not with a grand adventure, not as being a hero that saves the day. His chance is to not change his choices, but rather make his future ones better than his past ones. Ned escapes from his responsibility by running away, the death of his son makes him recluse himself further, hiding in the wild. Henry engages in a struggle with him, knowingly or not, for that secret to be kept buried. The fire that consumes the forest pushes both of them to leave, but as Ned retreats further into the wilderness it forces Henry to go home, alone, and consider his future.

The finale subverts most narrative expectations, by turning the big mystery into a small one. The big conspiracy turns out to be the work of a lone man, and the burgeoning love story gets curtailed. The setup for a grand adventure turns into a small mystery, and while many will feel disappointed by this, and I did too, but not to the detriment of the experience. Without wishing to trivialise it, there's a certain Scooby Doo nature to the reveal, that there's no killer or government conspiracy but rather one bad man.

It is also surprising how much thought into choices and consequences a game can provide while it actually has very limited choice throughout. With the release of a remastered Bioshock this week it does make me compare the approaches. Both are very linear games, with minor choices throughout, and both contain thought-provoking experiences on the nature of man and the choices we make. But I feel that Firewatch makes a much better point of it, especially since it doesn't have to wear the skin of an action shooter. While the game mechanics of Bioshock undermined it's point I feel like Firewatch instead finds a very good balance.

A key example is the radio conversations, present in both games. In Bioshock they are exposition dumps, a method of communicating the plot to the player in a convenient fashion. Firewatch leaves the majority of this to the environment, filled with short notes and objects to flesh out the world. The radio is used instead as a conversation tool, a way to build your relationship with Delilah in a two-way fashion, whilst also allowing you to curate your experience of the world to her.

You can choose to be open, and tell her what you see in it's entirety, asking her help and input at every turn. Or you can take a much more minimal approach, relying on the radio conversation only when necessary, as the game gives you the option to ignore her conversations at times (she may continue talking however, but you don't need to always reply).

This gives the characters much greater depth than a one-sided speech could ever manage. The ability to respond, even in a cursory way which may have no real impact, makes it a much more rewarding experience. It takes care and good writing in order to create this illusion though, and for a negative example you could look at a game like Fallout 4, or sometimes the Mass Effect series, in which there are often examples of badly written conversations where the illusion of choice is far too apparent and so feels cheap and unrewarding.

Time to leave...
Of course there's a certain advantage to indie games, they have the ability to explore the medium in ways a big budget game cannot (or will not). Much like "arthouse" or indie cinema, indie gaming provides a chance to see experimental and thought provoking games that we wouldn't otherwise. Long may this continue, and I hope these sorts of games can find the wider audience that they deserve.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Dark Souls 3: Design, Difficulty and Me

I am not a man who likes difficult games. I grew up in a time where it seemed like many games deliberately wanted to punish the player, with too many mistakes meaning a total game over. They were borne of the arcade mentality, where a new life would mean more money in the slot. Being good at a game meant you could play for longer on whatever meagre allowance you had. I was never good enough, so arcade machines just seemed far too expensive.

The games I grew to love took a more relaxed view of difficulty, a different approach. Sierra adventure games may have many ways for the player character to be killed, but they also allowed liberal use of save games and were relatively short. Ultima RPGs would usually freely resurrect the player character and party if you were defeated. Many games allowed for cheating, or had in-built cheats to give you access to almost everything will little or no skill required.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

No Man's Sky: From Hype to Reality

It can be difficult to avoid hype, to avoid hope, to avoid the ceaseless marketing push of certain games. For those of us that read games-related websites, who take an interest in what is available and what is upcoming, you may see news about the current hot game every day.