Friday, July 18, 2008

To unlock or not to unlock...

I finally started playing Super Smash Bros. Brawl recently, and I have to say it’s an awesome game. The more I play it, the less chaotic it is and the slicker and more productive my fighting skills become. Problem is: I don’t want to be better at this game.

That seems like a strange thing to say when dealing with a game, especially a game I just admitted to liking a lot. Fact is, Super Smash Bros. Brawl is a multi-player game and this is the main reason I bought it. I want to play this game with (‘up to’) three of my friends, not alone. As most of these friends don’t have a Wii with SSBB on it, I simply don’t want to train myself to such a point where competing is not fun anymore for those involved.

Why not stop playing alone then? Like with many games in the beat-‘m-up genre, a large part of the game’s attraction is unlocking hidden characters to play with. That’s not just the completist in me. These characters aren’t just cosmetic rewards. They all have their own unique and often exuberant fighting styles. So, I want Sonic, Solid Snake, Falco, Lucario. I need Ganondorf, Luigi, Mr. Game & Watch and Captain Falco.

Problem is: to unlock them I need to spend hours and hours on single-player content. Here’s what I need to do to unlock Jigglypuff, taken from an unlock guide on gamefaqs:

  1. Play 350 Brawls
  2. Complete SSE and then clear Events 1-20
  3. Complete SSE and then Find Jigglypuff in the Swamp stage (He is in a Red Door, just enter them all)

Admittedly, this character is one of the hardest to get access too, and there’s nothing wrong with rewarding perseverance and skill at all. The best/most dedicated players should get some kudos from the game. It’s all part of the whole challenge/reward curve of proper game design.

This completely logical reward system does however interfere with the casual gaming approach I’d like to take with this particular title. The either/or situation is a recurring one I find myself in with fighting games. Novice and expert players simply don’t mix well in this genre like they do in, say, Guitar Hero or Mario Kart.

Unlockable features, especially playable characters, remain tricky game design decisions in this industry. If you don’t want to or cannot invest the time and energy to unlock them, you are missing out on content you’ve already paid for.

I guess it’s back to single-player again for me. I might get better in SSBB than I (or my friends) would like. But who doesn’t want to fight with one’s own R.O.B..

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

WWI 2008: notes from a brand fest

The Blizzard Worldwide Invitational I visited last weekend certainly was a unique experience. For those of you unaware of what the WWI is, it’s basically a yearly celebration of all things Blizzard, ie. the Warcraft, Starcraft and Diablo videogame series, for non-US players (as those have their own Blizzcon). Thousands of eager fans swarmed Paris in search of Blizzard developers, playable unreleased games, scoops and, of course, goodie bags. I gleefully joined them.

The whole thing started with a giant opening ceremony. The most fascinating part about this ceremony wasn’t that the hosts whipped the crowd into a cheering frenzy for the presence of Blizzard’s ‘superstars’. That was to be expected. No, it was because these ‘superstars’ included not only the designers and founders of the company but also the heads of PR, marketing and, yes, even global finance. So here was a crowd of thousands, cheering for those who did not make the games and virtual worlds they adore, but for those whose job it is to make a lot of money out of this love. In all fairness, most of the crowd didn’t even know these ‘suits’ (or didn’t hear their names being called out due to the deafening music) but cheer they did. Hurray for the money!

A fellow researcher also present at the event sighed at one point that, in retrospect, the Sony organised Everquest events of yesteryear where far better organised - as a meeting point for community members that is. At these events, she told me, players all wore tags with their server and guild names on it, and the event nourished these sub-communities to meet and greet. No such things were organised at WWI. In Blizzard’s defense, this event was not just for World of Warcraft players (in contrast to the Everquest events). But it does fit WoW's image of being allabout playing alone together quit well.

The MMORPG genre has ‘grown up’ commercially. But it seems to have lost a lot of its tight community feeling.

Sub-communities a plenty though, and all were looking for acknowledgment with the Blizzard dev’s. Raiders where present to cheer for everything re-establishing their hardcore-ness (for example when, during a Q&A session, someone asked when Blizzard would solve the problem of the large influx of ‘newbs’). PvP’ers sat on the edge of their seats when class balance was discussed (how dare they/they should give [insert random class] a more powerful [insert random spell]). RP’ers showed up in full costume, proudly defying ridicule (murloc’s ftw!). There was even a brave furrie – he must have been one! - who asked if druids could please get gendered versions of their animal forms (short Blizzard answer: no).

All groups had to deal with Blizzard developers stressing that the upcoming World of Warcraft expansion pack Wrath of the Lich King is going to become ‘not easier, but more accessible’, with ‘less barriers’ and ‘reduced complexity’ (one might suspect these terms now form the official developer’s mantra, as they were heard many, many times). Some cheered, some winced, some took their opinions to the web to cause yet another flame war between casuals and hardcore players.

All I can say is that it’s a logical step that Blizzard is supporting the more casual approach to World of Warcraft play. By far the largest part of the player base can be considered ‘casual’ players.

On the other hand, it’s also usually this group who cause the feeling of a fragmented, individualised community. You can’t really blame casual players though; not everyone wants a ‘second life’. WotLK’s design approach simply looks like the future of the genre in its popular form. We will have to wait another few months for the expansion pack to come out to see if it’s really that bad/good for the community as a whole.

Oh, and the game they were hinting at in the days before WWI? It was Diabo III. When they thought it couldn’t get worse, here’s another title for moral crusader's on game addiction and violence to start worrying about. Hell, it must be the devil’s work!