NCBlog Semi-Weekly Update: 10/14/16

Whew! Hello everyone! Sorry for dropping off the map there. I’ve been pretty busy with work and editing this HBO movie, but right now I’m sitting in the Rich building waiting to get some paperwork signed off so I figured I’d post an update.

New Comics: (since last time)
All’s Fair:

New Videos: (since last time)
Fallout 4:


We’ve all been really busy with no time to record anything for a while. The plan is once I get a break I’m gonna move all the Backlog and gaming videos over to a separate channel and keep the main one for short films and silly videos and such.

IN THE MEANTIME if you’re wondering what I’ve been up to, here’s what I do at work:


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Mega Man: A Case Study

With the recent release of Mighty No. 9 it seems to be an appropriate time for me to write about how it will never live up to the might of the Mega Man franchise. Regular readers may have an inkling of how I felt about Mighty No. 9, but to make sure we’re all on the same page, it makes me sad. It makes me think of people whose little brother deletes their old file on Pok√©mon to start a new game just as they were about to beat the Elite Four. Think of all the progress that’s being lost!

I haven’t played the game, but I hear it’s a disappointment. That argument bothers me a little though; I mean, wouldn’t anything be a disappointing followup to the tragic cliffhanger and legacy of Mega Man? This is a series that not only represents the epitome of perfection in progressive game design, but also perfectly encapsulates the conflict between business and art.


Pretentious and potentially contentious claim deployed, proceed with clarification.

The foundations for this argument lie in the basics of Mega Man design. Most of these elements are explained and discussed in Egoraptor’s Sequelitis video for Mega Man X.

If you don’t have the time to watch that video, it details improvements made from Mega Man Classic to Mega Man X and how the developers and designers took concepts and ideas that worked from the first series and improved and refined them moving into the sequel series, along with introducing new concepts and ideas, and how that is a good.

But further examination and analysis shows that the fundamentals of this evolution, can, in fact, be found in every entry in the series, and in every series in the main-sequence evolution, which I will right now clarify as Classic, X, Zero, ZX.

If you examine every game, from game to game, each one improves existing mechanics and introduces new ones. New things that didn’t work are disposed of and the good ones are retained. There are numerous examples throughout the franchise, but I want to directly cite ZX and ZX Advent. Both games have sidequests and minor RPG elements, but after a lot of fetch-questing and tedious treks to the transservers in ZX, ZX Advent streamlines the process by having sidequests exist as side-objectives that are always active under whatever you happen to be doing, and making them all about exploration and shooting things, which you would be doing anyway.

Of course, the immediate counterargument to “every game is an improvement” is X7.

X7, alongside Sanic Adventure, is the UR example of poorly converting 2D gameplay into 3D space, as laid out in the ProJared video up there, and it has numerous other problems as well. How could that possibly be an improvement on X6, which, while ungraceful, still felt like a Mega Man game?

Sit down, fool, I’m getting to that. This article is all about the series as a whole, so we have to examine X7 in the context of the other games. Yes, X7‘s clunkiness is in poor taste compared to the copy-and-paste corporate cash grab that was X6 (YES CONTROVERSY AGAIN I WILL GET TO THAT LATER), but let’s look at the other end: X8. X8 completely strips out the 3D levels and puts us back in traditional side-scrolling gameplay. Notably, for the rest of main sequence, the franchise never attempts this again, and I will get to that in a few. However, X8 also retains the character-swap mechanic from X7, and improves it by differentiating Axl from X and making their gameplay styles different.

Furthermore, as I mentioned above, the Mega Man franchise never ventured into the realm of 3D gameplay again after X7, not even experimentally. Throughout the Golden Age of console gaming (GameCube/PS2 era), when “generic” games started being these floaty 3D platformer collect-a-thons, Mega Man opted to switch developers to IntiCreates and move over to handhelds, which at the time didn’t have the hardware to support 3D gameplay.

This choice to maintain gameplay identity, even though it would have appeased wallets to try to go 3D again, is a good segue into the other part of my argument in this now very bloated article. It’s not necessarily common knowledge, but this franchise suffered heavily from corporate interference. Keiji Inafune and Capcom had a very heated custody battle over the Blue Bomber that rivaled Kramer vs Kramer.

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While also not necessarily common knowledge, it’s pretty well-documented that Inafune intended X5 to be the last game. That’s why the secret ending has Zero sealing himself up in a capsule. That capsule is supposed to be the one in the beginning of Zero 1! Furthermore, X was actually intended to be the villain of the Zero games, which was to continue the whole plot thread of “if I ever go Maverick, kill me” conversation between X and Zero.

Capcom fucked all that up by going off and greenlighting X6 behind Inafune’s back. As an artist, I am physically revulsed by the idea of this. Imagine if Tolkien’s publishers told him to write a Book 4 to LotR and he said no, because the ring’s fucking destroyed already, so the publishers went out and found some random twat to write a Book 4 that contradicts The Silmarillion and Tolkien was forced to go along with that shit. THAT IS EXACTLY WHAT HAPPENED TO KEIJI INAFUNE.


The most important lesson to learn from this half of the article is probably that if you are a former business major and you want another installment of the series but the artist refuses, maybe come up with a different way to pay for your yacht than blithely pushing ahead anyway. As IS pretty well documented, each individual series in the Mega Man franchise gets worse and worse as it drags on beyond where the guy that knew what the hell was going on planned out.

I’m not saying that auteurism should rule. I know too many assholes who ruin everyones’ lives on a production for that. But there’s a reason business types come to creatives for ideas: The ideas.

~NCB

Your RPG is Too Long

So recently we finished Fallout 4 on the Backlog, after months of hour-long recording sessions and experiencing the same complaints over and over again. And as you may have noticed during this adventure, there was one point at which I was constantly making comparisons to Undertale.

At the same, Joe got me playing Borderlands 2 with him when it was on Steam sale for like $5, and the design of that game got me thinking about how games pace their gameplay and space things out. If you’ve played the game I’m sure you know this, but Borderlands 2 is padded to hell and back. Recommended levels on missions jump up way faster than you can be expected to level while playing, even if you walk everywhere and don’t fast-travel. In fact, the game actively encourages you to grind.

So yeah, we all know that modern games are about 25% actual content, 75% grinding. If I had to hazard a guess, I would argue that World of Warcraft started this trend, or at least popularized it, because an MMO has different demands than a single-packaged game. It’s weird, too, because I’ve been playing Overwatch, which actually avoids all of those terrible game design trends since the turn of the millennium (which is funny because that was the last time that Blizzard made any new games).


There’s no question that this trend of padding has resulted in us demanding more and more actual content from our games, which ironically encourages executives to pad the games even more to fulfill these “__ hours of content” quotas. But is a longer game necessarily better? Today I want to take a look at Undertale and Portal to address this question.

Undertale‘s official website states that average playtime is about 6 hours. This is the same game that took the internet by storm, to the point that we took this experience-driven game and wrecked it for everyone who hadn’t played it yet by spoiling the living crap out of it. Undertale has only three endings, you’re supposed to get all of them, and all the content can easily be played in a single addiction-driven week or so. By contrast, one such week in Fallout 4 will get you maybe a quarter of the way through the character creator.

Similarly, average playtime for Portal is like 4 hours. You could get it done between classes during a poorly-scheduled semester. And when you get it done, you want more. That’s the whole reason Portal 2 exists. Contrast this to long RPGs like Fallout 4 and Borderlands 2, that have almost TOO MUCH stuff to do in them. To have fun, you have to be at a certain level of competence in terms of your weapons and such, but to get those weapons you have to do a lot of repetitive grindey sidequests. Sure, the game will tell you that they’re optional, but the difficulty spikes in such a way that it’s pretty obvious you’re supposed to go do some dumb fetch quest before you’re allowed to have fun again.

Contrast again to old-fashioned SNES-era JRPGs, the classics like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI. If you haven’t played them in a while, I encourage you to do so. You’ll discover something interesting; these games are paced out in such a way that you don’t actually need to grind.

The reason this happens is pretty obvious, everyone knows why. Corporates who don’t know how to measure the quality of a game go and just measure it by numbers, because math is easy and they’ve got plenty of experience counting money. But it’s weird because a lot of fans seem to measure games by hours of content too? Evidently Fallout 4 Far Harbor has like 20 hours of extra content that I am not looking forward to having to do on the Backlog.

But is there anything inherently wrong with a short, concise game that gets all of its info and content across in just a few hours? It’s short, sweet, and you can price it at something relatively reasonable. Firewatch is the most recent example of this. An enjoyable, concise experience that didn’t wear me or my wallet out, emotionally spiritually mentally etc. And this, my friends, is the point I’m trying to get at.

Long, content-dense, meandering modern RPGs are exhausting!

Whenever I’m looking to play through old games again, I scroll through my Steam library and I’m like “oh God, do I really want to go through that whole thing again??” This happens even with really good games, like Assassin’s Creed 2. By contrast, I’ve played through grindless RPGs like Mario & Luigi Superstar Saga several times apiece, and it’s still fun to go through every time. Superstar Saga is a game that minimizes inventory finagling by simplifying your equips, gives you plenty of free items, and lets you skill your way through difficult situations instead of forcing you to stat-bulldoze your way through obstacles.

I guess it’s easy enough to chalk all this up to lazy game design, but you’d think given the amount of effort a game takes to make, cutting back on resources would be encouraged? But I guess then you wouldn’t have an excuse to charge $60 for it. But there seems to be this persistent ideal that a game’s worth is judged by the amount of content you get on the first playthrough, and that’s definitely a facetious idea even in linear RPGs with one ending. I’ve gotten a hundred times more amusement from Portal than from Fallout 4. So, if we do the math, based on my Steam playtimes, that means Portal is 5200 times better.

And I got it for $50 less too.
~NCB

The Standardization of Sanic

Now I’m not a game designer or anything. But I’m really intrigued by game design trends, and how follow-the-leader-ey they can be. It reminds me of early film history, when someone like Buster Keaton would do something CRRRRAAAAAZY and also brilliant, and everyone would do similar things.

Early film history has a lot of definitive classics that clearly influenced what other people did, but it’s only recently that all the subject material begins to fall along certain lines. Every modern movie is either an action/sci-fi or a raunchy, unfunny Judd Apatow comedy. Take a look at these box office results in the link in this sentence. Notice how the closer to the present you are, the more similar the films. In the 70’s, we have Rocky, Blazing Saddles, The Godfather, and Jaws, a wide variety. In the 2000’s, we have slight variations on a theme of “action” across the board. Like band music.

But that’s a rant for another day; Today we’re going to talk about video games, because video games have so much more than just genre that they can thoughtlessly copy from their predecessors.

Perhaps the most interesting thing I’ve noticed since getting into modern games is how many don’t even bother to explain to you the controls. It’s kind of assumed that they’re the same as another one in the genre.




There are a couple distinct gameplay models now that you MUST WORK IN. Open-world sandbox and FPS are the two big ones, but this isn’t a new trend. Back in the SNES days, everything was a 2D platformer or a top-down JRPG. And with the rise of indie games, it’s intriguing to me how many games are beginning to go back to alternate styles. Obviously nostalgia and budget are the main reasons, but I’m hoping that I’m not the only one who’s noticed that these “nonstandard” gameplay models just work better for some types of game.

Take, for example, Sanic the Horgeheg.




Sonic Adventure was, at its core, a highly experimental game. It was SEGA’s attempt to hit that Super Mario 64 gold. And while I enjoy it because it’s so dang redankulous, from a purely objective game design standpoint, it’s kind of shit. It’s more all-over-the-place than Fallout 4 and, importantly, doesn’t really understand Sanic’s limitations in terms of gameplay.

While a lot of people will strangle me with my own intestines for saying that, Sonic’s core gameplay just doesn’t work in a 3D space. He just goes too fast to control. But if you slow him down it’s not fast and it’s no fun. Even in Sonic Colors, which was quite good, the 3D segments aren’t “truly 3D.” You’re on a track, with “forward” as the clear direction of progression and the main action taking place in two dimensions, up-down and left-right. The third dimension, forward and back, is taken care of for you. It’s kind of deceptively 3D. There are “true 3D” segments scattered throughout, but these areas typically last less than 10 seconds in regular gameplay.


And it’s fun! The key thing that people seem to miss is that it’s no less awesome for being in 2D. Sanic’s games have been good when they were about going fast. The best way to complement this through game design is to minimize the things that the player has to worry about. Make it about the levels and going fast. Why does every game have to have a 3D open world? We made games without them for 30 years!

Go back and take a look at Sonic ’06 again. You’ll notice that, behind the plain ol’ incompleteness, there are open environments and fully 3D platforming segments that require precision, despite the platforming controls being just as slippery if not more than they were in Heroes and Shadow. But even beyond this, there are “next-gen” features crammed into every orifice of this game, like the wacky physics engine. How does this elevate the core gameplay concept of going fast, besides making flying cars harder to dodge because it’s not entirely clear if they’re going to bounce in a weird direction? You’ll also notice that the Silver campaign is the most bearable, because he doesn’t go fast and also his gameplay mechanics are enhanced by the physics.

Look a little harder and you’ll notice this in all sorts of games. Specific pieces of gameplay that aren’t really complemented by the game design and interface. Often times they’re little things that we put up with because they’re minor inconveniences in overall solid experiences, but they’re still there. Melee combat in first-person doesn’t work because the weapon’s “hit” is rarely instantly responsive (it usually has to go through part of the swing animation before the hitbox goes live) and you don’t have a clear picture of your swing arcs so you can’t space properly. Platforming in first-person is also impossible because you can’t see your own feet and you have no feeling of presence in the environment. Anything in first-person besides shooting, really.


There seems to be this perception that your video game has to be this all-encompassing experience. And I kind of get that. When I was a little kid, I used to fantasize about what it would be like to have “the perfect video game” that was every video game, all at once. Like, there’d be a Sanic campaign where you’d go through all the Sanic games in chronological order, and it’s like the ENTIRE THING!! The ultimate goal of this sort of simulation is to emulate reality.

Except you can’t do that. Not yet. I’m about 90% sure we’re not living in the Matrix. And I think that’s a good thing. The nature of narrative and film and video games is to be a different experience, not homogenized down to the same thing. You shouldn’t add crafting and racing side-missions to every game just because they’re cool. Rather, you should strive to make this game a unique experience and the best it can be. Shadow wasn’t a shitty game because it tried to be DARK N’ EDGY, it was a shitty game because it didn’t fix issues from previous games and integrated its new mechanics poorly.


Plus, if anyone does manage to create “the perfect video game,” they’re going to make all the money. Then nobody else will buy anybody else’s games and the industry will screech to a halt. Thus, for the greater good, everyone should adopt these game design policies laid down by a random Asian kid on the internet.
~NCB

Undertale:

I initially wrote out a full review of this game. But then I read over it and it really didn’t do the game justice. Zach is always going on about how Fallout 4 is an experience? Fuck that noise. You haven’t experienced an experience until you’ve experienced Undertale.

I guess the one real statement I can make is to give it time. Be patient. Let your own intuition carry you through it.

You may have noticed that this entire review is a link. It goes to the Steam store page, and if you haven’t clicked it by now and bought it you should get on that, because you deserve to play Undertale.
~NCB

P.S.: I know that this is cheating. I’ll have a real review for you tomorrow.

P.P.S.: Why are you still here and not playing Undertale?

Fallout 4: Death of an FPS

Full Disclosure: As of this writing, I haven’t actually finished the game. But we’ve done like 20 or 30 videos by now, and I think I have a decent handle on how it plays and what its problems are, and that’s why this review is going up.

Now, before I go on to vivisect Fallout 4 I’d like to clarify that I don’t think it’s bad. It’s entertaining enough, and it certainly keeps Zach occupied. It’s another version of The Bethesda Game, and people loved The Bethesda Game when it came out in the Viking version (Full Disclosure again, I haven’t played Skyrim yet either).

Problem is, I think that this game is indecisive. Schizophrenic. Inconsistent. And, as the title of this article may suggest, I’m going to compare it to a famous piece of literature, the movie adaption of which had Dustin Hoffman in it.

The problem with Fallout 4 is that it doesn’t play to its strengths. It does some good things. I think the Bethesda Game’s exploration methodology is great. It tells you how to do things right at the beginning and then puts you in a place and lets you run around looking for dumb things to do.

And that’s fun! I enjoy it! Exploration games are great, man. There’s something natively appealing about going on your own journey, as opposed to a straightforward narrative that focuses on a single character, like Assassin’s Creed 2.

HOWEVER:

If you don’t have time to listen to Egoraptor scream for like 30 minutes, this video is all about how modern Legend of Zelda games don’t really get exploration anymore. In particular, Skyward Sword was an Assassin’s Creed 3 style checklist of things to do in a particular order and then you could move along to do the next thing.

Now, I think that Fallout 4 has this exploration gameplay down pat. Like I said up there a couple paragraphs ago, I like how this game drops you into an environment and lets you goof off however you want. That’s cool!

Problem is, the game design doesn’t really compliment this. This game is a great exploration game that wants to be a triple-A FPS. Everything about the way the game feels and plays is like an FPS. The camera sits either in the player character’s face or over the shoulder, and is tightly constrained to point in one direction, rather than providing a wide field-of-view. It doesn’t automatically turn to point where the player is moving. Instead, it stays anchored to the crosshair in the center of the HUD and moves only when the player directs it to. Reload and Ironsights are given their own buttons.

Further compounding these gameplay issues are art direction issues. The game looks like a brown triple-A FPS. It’s washed-out. Everything’s hard to see and looks all the same. This is a death sentence for a game where the point is to go find new places that look different. Come on guys, this isn’t even good art direction in the brown triple-A FPSes themselves.

So now it’s time to do the high-minded pretentious comparison. In Arthur Miller’s famous play that I had to read for AP Lit Death of a Salesman, the main character is an ordinary dude who wants to be happy by being a successful salesman, without realizing that there are other things in his life that he’s better at and make him happy besides. The play is all about his failure to meet up with these arbitrary standards of success without thinking about what he’s good at and what makes him happy for realsies.

Similarly, Fallout 4 is a good exploration game that wants to be a successful and happy triple-A FPS, but just isn’t particularly good at that. It’s a console-and-PC release, so it has to make compromises both ways in its design. Particularly noticeable is the way that dialogue, which Zach assures me was much better in Fallout 3 and New Vegas, is “Mass Effected” to be simpler for people who want to shoot first think later. But then what’s with the Farmville features?

The world is telling Fallout that it needs to be a successful brown FPS to be happy. It’s really good at being an exploration game, but it wants to be happy so it goes and relents and stuffs its ass full of brown and terrible enemy design and shooting, and it can’t even pull it off as well as Halo. And it’s all our fault! That’s right! We went and bought Battlefield and CoD and influenced the market trends, which are the only things that the guys who control the money understand.

Of course, at the end of the play, the guy commits suicide. Fallout 4 is more popular than porn, so that’s not gonna happen. And it’s a little disappointing, because it doesn’t matter what people say once it’s already sold the copies. If you’re still on the fence, my recommendation is to play New Vegas again instead.

~NCB